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Balloons and Airships

  AIRSHIPS (1900-1990)

At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.25 Define rigid airship.
5.26 Name the man who built and flew the world's first rigid airship.
5.27 Identify the world's first commercial airship.

In July 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin built and flew the world's first rigid airship, the LZ­1. (A rigid airship has an internal framework of steel or aluminum girders which support and give it shape.) This began a long period of German domination of this type of aircraft. In fact, Germany so dominated the rigid airships that they became known as zeppelins.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin

Zeppelin continued to build large rigid airships for the German government, and on June 22, 1910, the Deutschland became the world's first commercial airship. Between 1910 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, German zeppelins flew 107,208 miles and carried 34,028 passengers and crew entirely without injury.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.28 Discuss the use of airships in World War I.

During World War I, the Germans used rigid airships on both the Eastern and Western Fronts as bombers. The airships could approach their targets silent and at altitudes above the effective ceiling of British and French fighters. However, the airships never became effective offensive weapons. Several were lost because of bad weather and 17 were shot down because they could not climb as fast as fighters. Also, the crews suffered from cold and oxygen starvation when they exceeded 10,000 feet. Airships did excel as defensive weapons though; the British used nonrigid airships to patrol their coasts and used rigid airships for convoy protection.

A British BETA-class airship




At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.29 Describe the advances in rigid airships made by the Germans after 1926.
5.30 Discuss the use of airships by the U.S. Navy between World War I and World War II.

Rigid airships rose to the peak of their success between World War I and World War II. Following World War I, the Germans were forced to surrender all of their zeppelins to the Allies. The LZ­126 was brought to the United States and was renamed the Los Angeles. It served the U.S. Navy for eight years, after which it was retired and scrapped.

In 1926, the Treaty of Versailles allowed the Germans to construct airships again and they built three giant rigid airships. They were the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, LZ-l29 Hindenburg, and LZ-l30 Graf Zeppelin II. The Graf Zeppelin was very successful. Launched in 1928, the following year it made a successful round­the-world flight. During the ten years it flew, the Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights including 144 ocean crossings. It flew more than one million miles and carried 13,110 passengers. In 1939, the Graf Zeppelin was retired. The Hindenburg became the most famous of all airships, not because of its success but because of its spectacular end. The Hindenburg was launched in 1936 and made ten successful round­trips between Germany and the United States. On May 6, 1937, as the Hindenburg was preparing for landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, it exploded. It crashed to the ground and burned, killing 36 people. The Graf Zeppelin II was commissioned in 1938. Before it could go into commercial service, World War II began, and it was scrapped during the war.

The Hindenburg (LZ-129) over New York City just prior to the catastrophe.

The Hindenburg explodes, May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station.

The charred remains of the Hindenburg underguard.

Demise of the LZ-129, recorded May 6, 1937.

The U.S. Navy also flew rigid airships. In 1923, the Navy built the ZR­I Shenandoah. On September 3, 1925, the ZR­I broke up during a storm over Ohio. Fourteen of the 43 crewmen were killed.

In 1924, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was granted patent rights by Germany to build zeppelins in the United States. They built two ships for the Navy and both met with disaster. The Akron crashed during a storm off the New Jersey coast in 1933, and the Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1935. Investigations by the Navy and Congress endorsed the continued use of rigid airships for the Navy. However, due to the outbreak of World War II, construction was never started.


The airship U.S.S. Macon being towed into Hangar No. 1 following its first landing at Moffett Field, October 15, 1933.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.31 Discuss the use of airships in World War II.

The U.S. Navy continued operating nonrigid airships during and after World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy asked for an increase in the number of airships. By June 1942, Congress authorized construction of 200 airships. During the war, the Navy airships patrolled an area of over 3,000,000 square miles over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. There were 532 ships sunk off the coasts of the United States during World War II. Of the 89,000 ships escorted by airships, none were lost to enemy action. In addition to convoy protection, the airships conducted search and rescue, photographic, and mine clearing missions.

A U.S. Navy airship, better known as a "blimp".

Only one airship was lost to enemy action. The K­74 fought a surfaced German submarine. The U­boat shot down the airship, but the K­74 damaged the German submarine so badly it could not submerge. The submarine was sunk by British bombers in the North Sea while it was en route to Germany for repairs.



At the end of this block of study, you should be able to:
5.32 Discuss the use of airships following World War II.
5.33 Discuss the plans for future use of airships.

The Navy continued to use airships until 1964. In The 1980s, the Navy again looked at reviving airships, but Congress terminated funding for the project in 1989.

Many people view airships as they do dinosaurs, something that was interesting for its time but is now extinct. That may be true for the dinosaur but not for airships. Goodyear has used airships for years to cover sporting events and parades and for aerial advertising. During the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, airships were used for surveillance. Airship Industries and Westinghouse are working jointly on the Sentinel 5000 airship. This 400 foot­long, all-weather airship, carrying radar, could conduct 30 day patrols with a crew of 15. In 1989, the Soviet Union began working on a disk shaped airship capable of lifting several hundred tons. The Soviets had hoped to have a smaller version flying by 1993.

The ever popular Goodyear blimp.

A one-person personal airship classified as an Ultralight, manufactured by World Wide Aero.

Today there are many airships flying, mostly for advertisement.

Unlike the dinosaur which cannot come back, the airship can. With economic and environmental issues becoming more prominent each year, researchers are looking more and more at bringing back airships by the hundreds. An airship can fly all day using the amount of fuel a 747 uses taxiing to the runway. Compared to other aircraft, noise and air pollution would be greatly reduced. The cost of transporting cargo would be more economical. The need for airport space would be greatly reduced. With today's space­age technology, airships will become one of the safest methods of transportation.

An artist's rendition of the Zeppelin NT LZ-07 expected to fly in 1996.

The Zeppelin Corporation rises from the ashes and designs a new semi-rigid airship.


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Updated: 02 November, 2009