Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Lighter than Air

I thought I would bring together and expand a little on the posts I made the other day on the history of airships. I have always thought it sad that these graceful, silver giants of the sky didn’t make a better go of it.

What makes an airship an airship as opposed to a balloon is the ability to be steered rather than proceeding at the mercy of the winds. For this reason the earliest airships were known as dirigibles; ‘steer-ables’.

The first working dirigible was flown by Henri Giffard in 1852. This steam-powered airship managed a flight of 17 miles at a speed of 5 miles per hour.

Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont took the airship to the next level by creating the first gasoline powered airship in 1898 by combining the engine from his De-Dion tricycle with a propeller. Having improved on the airship principle he moved on to aeroplanes. In 1906 he developed a curious hybrid comprising both a balloon for achieving take-off and an aeroplane for horizontal flight. (Pictured)

Early airships were of the ‘blimp’ variety where the shape of the bag was maintained by the pressure of the gas within. In 1900 Ferdinand Zeppelin created a rigid framed airship named LZ1 with an aluminium skeleton and 17 hydrogen cells. It’s first flight over Lake Constance carried 5 passengers to a height of 1300 feet.

And so a legend was born. Zeppelin continued to refine his designs and in 1909 formed the German Airship Transportation Corporation (DELAG). A year later his airship LZ7 ‘Deutschland’ set out on the first commercial flight from Dusseldorf only to crash in the Teutoburg Forest. Luckily none of the 23 passengers were injured. Zeppelin pressed ahead with new designs and between 1910 and 1914 DELAG airships made 1500 commercial flights without incident, carrying some 34,000 passengers.

The potential of the airship for military use was first grasped by US military who commissioned a dirigible in 1908. During the First World War the Zeppelin airships were initially intended to be used for naval surveillance but were soon turned against civilian targets in England. In total Zeppelin airships made 159 attacks on England during the First World War, resulting in 557 civilian casualties.

 Following the downing of the massive L33 over Essex in 1916 the British gained a valuable insight into German airship construction from analysing the wreckage (pictured). The result was R33, Britain’s answer to the Zeppelin, unfortunately the airship was not completed until after the end of hostilities and was used for military testing before being handed over for civilian use. In 1925 the R33 was swept from her mooring mast in a gale and blown out over the North Sea. Her crew received gold-watches from King George V in recognition of their gallant efforts in returning the R33 safely to base.

The end for the golden era of the Airship came of course with the fiery destruction of the Hindenburg in 1937.

British airship aviation had suffered a similar calamity when the R101; pinnacle of British Airship design crashed in 1930 en-route to Karachi. The crash killed 48 of the 54 on board and sounded the death knell of the British air-ship programme. Its sister ship the R100 constructed by Vickers under the watchful eye of Barnes Wallis was scrapped the following year, angering Wallis who had been critical of the Air Ministry's R101 design.

For more on airships see the links below:

British Pathe airship footage

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