Common Airship Myths

Aren’t all big airships explosive like the Hindenburg?
The Hindenburg was filled with Hydrogen, which is indeed explosive. Today, however, Helium is used in place of Hydrogen. Helium is one of the so called noble gasses because of its inherent safety and stability. Though helium does not provide as much lift as Hydrogen, it is still considerably lighter than the surrounding air and therefore enough to lift an airship.

Aren’t Zeppelins a Nazi invention?
Zeppelins were built by Count von Zeppelin well before the Nazis came to power. Aside from German Zeppelins the United States and Great Britain constructed and flew several very large rigid airships of their own. The British R100 and R101 were the largest aircraft in the world at the time of their construction and each carried passengers in the lap of luxury. The United States constructed two very large rigid airships, the Akron and the Macon, that operated as flying aircraft carriers.

Dr. Hugo Eckener, who ran the Zeppelin Company and also commanded many zeppelin airships was not on the best terms with the Nazi regime and at one point was even declared to be a non-person by Hitler’s government. With Nazi control of Germany and the Zeppelin Company in financial turmoil the Nazis were able to take control over the Zeppelin Company and use it for their propaganda purposes. In the end it was the Nazis who ordered the destruction of the last remaining Zeppelins.

Blimps and Zeppelins are basically the same, right?
Nope! The terms airship or dirigible can be used inter-changeably to broadly describe any lighter-than-air craft that is steerable. Within this classification there are three primary types of airship that are determined by their internal structure. These three types of airships are non-rigids, semi-rigids, and rigids. Blimps are non-rigid airships because they have no internal structure and keep their shape solely from the internal pressure of the lifting gas.

Zeppelins are rigid airships because they have an internal structure which is responsible for their shape. Due to this internal structure rigid airships can be made quite large and have the internal lifting gas divided into multiple cells. Internal compartments can also be constructed within the rigid structure and engines can be positioned along the hull of the airships to provide better thrust and less noise for passengers.

Semi-rigid airships are a cross between rigid and non-rigid airships in that the airship derives part of its shape from the internal structure and the rest of its shape from the internal gas pressure.

Airships can’t handle bad weather.
Small non-rigid airships may have long-range difficulty in severe weather, but there are several recorded instances of large zeppelins encountering severe squalls and passing through intact. The success of German zeppelins in severe weather came down to both great piloting skill as well as structural engineering. British and American rigid airships succumbed to bad weather in large part due to avoidable piloting errors and structural flaws.

Today there are two major developments that further diminish bad weather as a problem for airships. Advances in weather tracking technology and the development of more powerful vectoring propulsion systems combine to help airships avoid inclement weather altogether or be able to ride out the storm. Advances in flight instrumentation, structural design techniques and material strengths could also serve to further enhance the durability of any modern rigid airships.
Bad weather poses the greatest risk to airships taking off and landing. Take off and landing procedures could be further developed with technology. In the event of poor weather conditions airships may delay a take-off or landing just as airplanes do today.

Airships are too slow and cumbersome.
Compared with airplanes most other forms of transportation are slow, but many people would be surprised to learn that the Hindenburg could achieve a maximum airspeed of nearly 90 miles per hour. Today’s blimps can achieve speeds of roughly 60 mph. With further development modern rigid airships could likely achieve speeds even faster than the Hindenburg’s and with weather tracking an airship could more easily find tailwinds to achieve even faster ground speeds and improve fuel efficiency.
Old rigid airships were fast considering their size, but they were still quite cumbersome and required hundreds of men to assist with takeoff and landing procedures. This could potentially change today with the use of more powerful multi-vectoring propulsion systems along with automation and other modern advancements.

Airships are just a failed branch of aviation.
In spite being filled with hydrogen, many German zeppelins were quite successful and prior to the Hindenburg the Zeppelin Company had never lost a single passenger due to any mishaps. As a weapon of war any aircraft filled with a high explosive may not be such a good idea, but with non-flammable helium things might have been quite different. In any case, as a passenger aircraft the zeppelin was first to be used for a commercial airlines. DELAG, the German Airship Travel Corporation, formed on November 16th, 1909 and carried 34,028 passengers on 1,588 flights until 1914 at the start of World War I without serious injury to any passengers.

It was a zeppelin that first crossed the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Europe to mainland America non-stop and it was this same zeppelin that established the first trans-Atlantic commercial airlines. During its 9 year operational lifetime starting in 1928 the LZ127 Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights carrying 13,110 passenger over a million miles without a single injury. The Graf Zeppelin made 144 ocean crossings at a time when even one crossing by airplane was still considered a life or death affair.

At the time of their development rigid airships were superior to the airplane in many respects. They flew much farther and could carry more passengers in comfort. Early airplanes experienced as many if not more crashes than airships. The biggest difference with large airships was public perception. If a small plane crashed somewhere it was just part of the risk early aviators took, but if a large airship crashed it became an event in and of itself. If allowed the same level of development as the airplane received over time we would likely still see large rigid airships flying today and with even greater efficiency. However, with the highly publicized destruction of the Hindenburg public perception around the world had turned against rigid airships.

Airships could never compete with airplanes.
Airships have no need to compete directly with airplanes since they fulfill entirely different roles. Airships can rely on their buoyancy to take off and land vertically as well as hover in mid-air and use less fuel. An airship does not require the same degree of infrastructure that an airplane requires and therefore can fly direct to nearly any point on the surface of the earth. Most airplanes today require large quantities of fuel and very resource intensive airports with long runways to get around. A very large airship also has the potential to carry far heavier and bulkier payloads than an airplane. The airplane’s advantage is in speed, while the airship’s advantage is in logistical versatility.
Due to the airplane we no longer see many trans-oceanic passenger ships. There are far fewer ocean liners today as a direct result of the airplane’s superior speed, and yet we still have ships. Passenger ships still exist in the form of cruise ships used for recreational purposes. Ships have simply changed their role since the onset of the airplane. Flying ships or airships can do much the same thing.

Unlike an airplane, where most of the time you are seated, on board an airship you could look out the wide windows on the scene below, walk over to a table to play a game of cards, get out on the dance floor, have dinner and some drinks and then turn in for the night in your cabin. The experience would be unlike anything in existence today. Vibrations, noises and turbulence were nearly non-existent on an airship. In fact, a game of many passengers on large airships like the Hindenburg was to balance a pen on its end and see how long it remained standing. The pen would rarely, if ever, fall over.

For all their size, airships can’t really lift very much.
Large rigid airships such as the Hindenburg had interior spaces unseen from the outside that could provide ample space for passengers and cargo. These were truly flying ships that could carry many passengers in style. Passengers slept in cabins, cooks prepared meals in fully stocked kitchens; there were promenades, reading rooms, dining rooms, and many cargo spaces that comprised the interior compartments within the frame of airships like the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg, the Graf Zeppelin 2, and the British R100 and R101 were all newer styles of large rigid airships that were capable of carrying upwards of 100 people including passengers and crew in comfortable living arrangements and with plenty of food and provisions for longer voyages.

The United States Navy’s two aircraft carrier zeppelins, the Akron and the Macon, were able to carry 5 and 9 sparrowhawk biplanes respectively along with full crew compliments. German, American and British rigid airship developers all had plans for future larger versions that would have been capable of carrying even more passengers and cargo.

As airships grow in size their lift becomes even more efficient. This is because the ratio of surface area to volume decreases as a volume of space increases. The material necessary to enclose a volume of lifting gas will comprise a smaller percentage of an airship’s overall weight as its size increases. With stronger and lighter modern materials today’s airships could be truly massive and thus achieve capacities far greater than any aircraft ever built.