On October 8th
supported by Don Williams, talked about airships and their history.
Although not professionally involved with airships Brian has a keen
interest in the subject and is active in the Airship Heritage Trust,
concerned with history, and the Airship Association involved with
current and future developments.
by referring to the Jesuit, Father Francesco de Lana, who in 1670
proposed an aerial ship supported by four evacuated spheres and
propelled by a sail. The first manned free-flight, in November 1783,
was in a hot-air balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers and flown,
for 25 minutes near Paris, by Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the
Marquis d'Arlandes. It was believed that it was smoke that gave lift so
wet straw and animal carcasses were burned as fuel.
Soon hydrogen took over from hot air as the lifting medium and in
January 1785 Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries flew across the
English Channel from Dover to Calais having to jettison ballast and
equipment to make it.
VTOL - Airships
The powered dirigible, or steerable, airship
emerged in the 19th
century (Henri Giffard was the first with a steam powered machine in
September 1852) and in October 1901 Alberto Santos-Dumont won a £6,000
prize for a flight round the Eiffel Tower in his No.6 airship. By 1903
he was the sensation of Paris using his diminutive No.9 airship as
personal transport. Brian showed a charming slide of the airship parked
outside a sidewalk cafe whilst Santos-Dumont had some refreshments!
In the UK airships were soon used to advertise products such
Bovril, and for political purposes when two suffragettes flew over the
Houses of Parliament in an airship bearing the slogan 'Votes for Women.'
These early airships were of the non-rigid type, without an
framework, which relied on gas pressure to maintain their shape, so
they could bend or sag if the pressure dropped. The invention of the
ballonet, separate air chambers within the gas envelope which were kept
inflated by ram air from the propeller slipstream, solved the problem.
In the First World War (WWI) the Royal Naval Air Service operated 220
non-rigid 'blimps' on anti-submarine patrols.
aristocratic Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had ideas for big airships
consisting of a rigid girder frame containing gas cells and covered in
fabric. His factory was at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance, south
Germany, where he built an enormous floating hangar from which his
airships emerged on pontoons, the first flying in 1900.
from January 1915, Zeppelins bombed England in 53 raids causing 557
civilian deaths. British propaganda called them "baby killers" although
the effect of the raids was mainly psychological. Initially effective,
the campaign was a failure, Zeppelins being shot down from 1916, and
was stopped in April 1918. Such machines were some 540 ft long
(Blackpool Tower is 500 ft), cruised at 58 mph and had a range of 2,700
In July 1919 the British
R-34 made the first airship
crossing of the Atlantic from East Fortune to New York, returning three
days later. On arrival the Captain parachuted down to direct the
inexperienced ground crew and on being asked what he thought of the USA
replied, "Hard." Two stowaways, Valentine and Whopsy, a cat, became
celebrities in the USA. In August 1921 the R-38 broke up and
into the Humber. The R-100 and R-101 of 1929 were the prototypes of
what was to be a fleet of passenger airships to fly Empire air routes
to Canada, India, Australia, South Africa etc. They were, of course,
rigids, with a framework of Duralumin covered in five acres of fabric
painted with dope containing aluminium powder to reflect the heat from
the sun. The gas cells (17 in the R-101) were linen lined with 'gold
beaters' skin, ox intestine wall material, which was gas-tight, light,
strong and most importantly in view of the hydrogen contents, did not
produce sparks if torn.
In July and
August 1930, the R-100, built by
Vickers, made a successful return flight to Canada, but the R-101,
built at the Government factory at Cardington, crashed and burned at
Beauvais on the way to India. There were only six survivors amongst the
54 people on board. The dead included the Secretary of State for Air
and the Director of Civil Aviation. Subsequently the British airship
programme was abandoned and the R-100 scrapped.
In the USA the
Navy operated three large helium filled dirigibles for long range
reconnaissance. Built by the Goodyear Zeppelin Corp, the USS Shenandoah
was flown in 1923, and the later Akron and the Macon in the 1930s. For
protection up to five Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk biplane fighters were
carried in a 'hangar' within the hulls of Akron and Macon. They were
launched from a 'trapeze' on which the fighters were lowered through
the floor into the airstream. Retrieval was by the pilot aiming a probe
on a pylon above the upper wing into a loop on the 'trapeze'. All three
airships were lost due to weather after which the large rigid airship
was abandoned in America. However, the US Navy continued to use
non-rigid Goodyear reconnaissance 'blimps' throughout the second World
War and up to 1962. Some of these 'blimps' had large early-warning
radars inside the inert helium-filled envelopes.
Germany the Zeppelin factory continued to produce giant airships, the
LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin being very successful making 144 Atlantic
crossings as well as a round-the-world flight in August 1929. The
LZ-129 Hindenburg, the world's largest airship (804 ft long, 135 ft max
diameter) flew in March 1936. It carried 50 passengers in great luxury
there even being an aluminium framed grand piano in the lounge. The
control car had two wheels, one for the steering coxswain and one for
the height coxswain. The Hindenburg made the first of ten Atlantic
crossing in May but a year later was destroyed by fire when docking
with its British designed 200 ft high mooring and replenishment mast at
Lakehurst, New Jersey. Of the 97 people on board, 62 survived. The
cause was never determined; theories include static discharge and
sabotage. The Zeppelins used hydrogen because helium was produced in
the USA who would not export the 'strategic' material to Nazi Germany.
This was the end of the giant dirigible airship era and the
Hindenburg's sister-ship, Graf Zeppelin II, the last of the line, was
Moving on to today,
Brian said that there are 30
non-rigid airships in service being used for sight-seeing, photography,
publicity etc. As for large machines, there had been proposals from
Germany, the USA, South Africa and the Netherlands but none were built
due to lack of demand. The Skycat hybrid airship-aeroplane, a twin
hulled design using aerodynamic lift and suck-down/hover cushion
landing gear has flown as a small scale demonstrator, the Skykitten.
The Pentagon was attracted to this concept which was to carry a
complete fighting unit of 1,000 armed men with three months supplies of
food and ammunition. The small Zeppelin NT (new technology) semi-rigid
airship has flown successfully for sight-seeing. Like the Harrier it
uses vectored thrust, but from swivelling propellers, for lift and
propulsion, the basic aircraft being neutrally buoyant. It has
thrusters (reaction controls) for low speed control.
concluded by saying that the airship concept was attractive in many
ways but had yet to find a profitable commercial niche. After a long
question time and a well deserved vote of thanks Members had the
opportunity to look at a wonderful collection of large period
photographs, drawings and paintings whilst putting even more questions
to Brian and Don.