There was a time when airships were the kings of the sky, so why did they fade away? Also, are the rumours true that they might be making a comeback? Let's find out...
Depending on how old you are, when people say airships, the younger generation likely thinks of the Goodyear Blimp. Those getting longer in the tooth, however, will probably think of the Zeppelin or Hindenburg.
Now, although they're a similar shape, like a fat cigar with little fins at the back, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Basically, the previous generation Goodyear Blimp is an enormous balloon filled with helium. It's called a non-rigid airship and has no fixed structural parts inside the blimp.
The latest Goodyear Blimp is actually a semi-rigid airship, with a rigid lower or upper frame and a pressurized envelope.
The Zeppelins, however, are rigid airships and have an internal structure that holds up the form of the craft. Because of this aluminium frame, these aircraft need to be big, really big, to be able to fly. In fact, generally speaking, a rigid airship needs to be at least 120 metres long.
Although all three types of airships work on the same basic principals for flight, it is the latter of these three that we're talking about today. Even though they were built in the UK, USA and Germany, for simplicity sake, we'll call them Zeppelins, that's like calling all vacuum cleaners, Hoovers.
As we've already learned, the Zeppelins had a huge aluminium framework to give them their shape. Inside, was a series of individual gasbags. Most of these gasbags were made of 'goldbeater's skin', called the cecum, made from the intestines of cattle. To put this into perspective, a slaughtered ox would produce 1 square foot of cecum, and the lining of the gasbags was about 50,000 square feet. So 50,000 oxen were slaughtered for one airship. Yikes!
In these airships, some of these gasbags were filled with helium and others with air. The air was released to ascend and, when the desired altitude was reached, they pumped air back into those bags until a balance was achieved.
The outside of the frame was covered by fabric to protect the insides from the elements. They usually had four tail fins, some of which were larger than a tennis court, and several engines, mounted in gondolas that hung off the outside of the airship, powered these monsters of the sky.
Early models also used external gondolas for their passengers and crew, hung from the underside of the structure. Later models, however, had larger versions mounted inside the frame, with viewing decks running the length of the gondola.
These airships were massive, unbelievably so. In fact, the Hindenburg class of Germany's Zeppelins were the largest craft ever to fly. The LZ 129 Hindenberg was 245 metres long, longer than three Boeing 747s placed end-to-end, and 41 metres in diameter.
These giants of the sky could fly transatlantic routes faster than a ship could sail, and was the preferred method of transportation in the 1930s. Unfortunately, as one would expect, travelling in a massive aircraft full of thousands of pounds of flammable helium was always a danger.
The threat of exploding was of such concern that they built towering docks, so they didn't have to land on the ground. They were called mooring masts and, as the airship approached, they would drop a mooring cable from the nose of the ship to be attached to the mooring mast. Other cables descended for a dozen or so ground-crew to use to guide the Zeppelin towards its dock.
The masthead cable would be reeled in until it connected to the mooring mast, which could swivel so the airship could sway in the wind. This is also how passengers and crew could climb aboard, which must have been a frightening experience in itself. Interestingly, the spire on to of the Empire State Building was originally designed for this specific purpose. They only tried to dock once, but it was quickly aborted as the winds at the top are too hectic for it to be safe.
Unfortunately, after a couple of accidents, including the famous Hindenberg disaster that was caught on film, it was considered that these airships were too dangerous to fly. Besides, by this time, aeroplane development had come on in leaps and bounds and was a faster and safer way to travel.
The video by YouTuber, Joe Scott, below goes into more detail about these incredible machines. From their early development to their use in World War I and then trans-continental passenger travels.
Joe also covers the reemergence of these awe-inspiring airships, and what plans modern-day humans have intended for us. It's a terrific video, and you should watch it immediately.