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The history of airships and airship travel in commercial aviation

Airships were thought to be the future of commercial aviation until the Hindenburg disaster. But could they be making a comeback? Join ACS as we take a look at the history of airships, from passenger flights to military and advertising blimps, and a look into their future.

What is an airship?

Also known as a “dirigible balloon” or “blimp”, the classic airship is a large gas balloon that rises into the air and can be steered using engine-driven propellers. Similar to hot air balloons, they;re powered by lighter-than-air gases like hydrogen and helium. Airships come in three broad types: rigid and semi-rigid designs use metal frames to keep the balloon’s shape, while non-rigid balloons are inflated by gas alone. Airships have most commonly been used throughout history as:

  • Passenger airships – Britain, Germany, and the U.S. developed large, rigid airships for passenger flights, which were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. While the US had access to helium, other airships used highly-flammable hydrogen and many exploded in-flight, bringing passenger airship travel to an end.
  • Military airships – Germany used its famous Zeppelin airships for bombing during WWI, inspiring the British Royal Navy to create their own B-Class airships for detecting German submarines. Since then, airships have mainly been used as aerial surveillance for military forces.
  • Advertising blimps – Commercial blimps have been used for advertising since 1925, as they can hover over one space and be seen from afar. This means they’re particularly effective for advertising at outdoor events.

The early history of airships

The USS Macon, an American airship, floating over the city of New York in 1933
The USS Macon, an American airship, floating over the city of New York in 1933

The airship’s story begins in France, following the invention of the hot air balloon in 1783. Inspired by the creation, French engineer Jean Baptiste Meusnier designed an elaborate dirigible with an 84-meter-long elliptical balloon powered by three propellers, featuring a boat-like basket attached to the balloon by ropes.

The design was never built, but shortly after in 1785, French inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr John Jeffries crossed the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon. During the two-and-a-half-hour flight, the pair had trouble steering the balloon, which was also overloaded and dipped dangerously close to the water. To lighten the load, Blanchard and Jeffries threw out their cargo and even stripped off their clothes.

In the following years, airship design developments came thick and fast. In 1852, Henri Giffard flew the first steam-powered hydrogen balloon airship with steering. However, a key turning point came with the creation of the Zeppelin airship in 1895, which was patented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and built by David Schwarz.

The rise of Zeppelin and Goodyear airships

The Zeppelin was a rigid airship, featuring a long, thin, tough-skinned balloon filled with hydrogen gas. Small crew and passenger compartments were suspended beneath and there were two 15-horsepower engines, meaning the airship could fly 25 miles per hour. Zeppelins were mainly used for scenic passenger flights, but 20 were built to bomb Britain during WWI and were successful due to their speed and ability to carry heavy loads.

1925 saw the first flight of the Goodyear Pilgrim, a 110-foot-long, 45-foot-high helium airship. The Pilgrim was powered by an 80-horsepower engine and was the smallest airship in the world, capable of carrying two passengers as well as the pilot and mechanic. The Goodyear was popular for luxury pleasure cruises but later used by the US Navy and Army for surveillance. Today, many people know Goodyear airships as advertising blimps.

The Hindenburg disaster

Airship travel took a dramatic turn in May 1937, when the world’s largest passenger Zeppelin, LZ 129 Hindenburg, exploded while landing in New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew. The devastating crash was caught on camera by television crews and, along with a string of other airship fires, the Hindenburg disaster was largely responsible for ending passenger airship flights.

Just a year before the crash, the Hindenburg had successfully flown across the North Atlantic, becoming an icon for airship travel. The vessel was known for its luxurious interior, similar to five-star cruise ships and today’s private jet charters. The Hindenburg had 34 double-berth cabins capable of accommodating 72 passengers, as well as lavish dining rooms and lounges. There was also a writing room, bar, promenades for spectacular aerial views, and, unbelievably, a smoking room.

After the Hindenburg crash, airships were mainly used by the military for surveillance purposes and to carry cargo to remote areas. In 1984, for example, the US Navy funded a project to develop airships with turboprop engines for coast guard missions. This was later discontinued due to budget cuts, but design work continued by Westinghouse and Airship Industries, who developed the Sentinel 1000 which had its first flight in 1991.

Future of airship travel

An artist’s impression of a futuristic airship with a solar panel roof drifts over a mountain range
An artist’s impression of a futuristic airship with a solar panel roof drifts over a mountain range

So, what’s the current state of the industry? Are airships making a comeback? Here are some of the ways airships are currently being used or may be used in the future:

  • Delivering aid relief in disaster areas – Airships can reach remote areas since they don’t need a runway and can be lowered and tethered without touching the ground. The Aeroscraft, for instance, is a rigid-shell airship that can deliver cargo without having to land. In 2017, UK airship developer Hybrid Air Vehicles test-flew their Airlander 10, which is part helicopter, plane, and airship. It’s the world’s largest aircraft at 92 metres long and is perfect for carrying cargo to disaster areas.
  • Scientific monitoring – In 2013, Goodyear and Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik joined forces to create a fleet of super-fast, quiet Goodyear blimps. These models have been used in various scientific projects and experiments.
  • Eco-flights – As environmental concerns grow, sustainable air travel is rising in popularity. Given their low fuel costs and emissions, airships could make a comeback, similar to the rise in popularity of drones. Battery-powered airships can be entirely emission free and are virtually silent.
  • Communication and surveillance – Airships are a possible option for low-cost border surveillance, security and communication. For example, The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), developed by Northrop Grumman for the US army, can offer 21 days of continuous air surveillance.
  • Leisure flights – Modern airships benefit from technical advances and use of helium rather than flammable hydrogen. This means they could become popular for passenger flights again. In fact, as of 2017, Zeppelin is running 12 scenic tourist routes across Germany and Switzerland and plans to introduce flights in China.

As commercial aviation evolves, it looks like the story of the airship is set to continue. In the meantime, you can get a private jet charter quote for all your travel needs.



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