Zeppelin took flight

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin patented his rigid navigable airship on August 31st, 1895. Count Zeppelin’s innovation was to have a metal framework of crosswise rings linked by longitudinal girders, the whole assembly covered by fabric and with several gasbags inside. This enabled it to be much larger than totally flexible airships that retained their shape by pressure. It was also easier for it to carry loads distributed along its elongated length.

His airship had several engine-driven propellers attached in pods on the outside to drive it forward, and to manoeuvre it for landing and mooring. The early models carried passengers in a gondola slung underneath and, while this provided spectacular views, it could be cold over the North Atlantic or Siberia because safety forbade the use of fire to provide heating. Instead the passengers wrapped up in furs and blankets.

In later models the passenger cabin was moved inside, and heated from the hot water circulated from that used to cool the engines. They were flown commercially from 1910, by the world’s first passenger airline. By 1914 they had made 1,500 flights, carrying 10,000 fare-paying passengers. The first World War interrupted their development, and the Germany military used them for reconnaissance and bombing raids that killed 500 people in Britain.

The military Zeppelins were very vulnerable to ground fire unless they flew at high altitude, and became increasingly vulnerable to attack by aircraft. Several were lost by accidents involving weather, and the overall view was that they were insufficiently reliable to be viable war weapons. After the war, Germany was restricted by the Treaty of Versailles from building big airships, but when that clause was lifted in 1926, they built the Graf Zeppelin, and then the Hindenburg, and the golden age of airships began.

The Graf Zeppelin flew 4.5 days to Lakehurst, New Jersey, setting a new record, with its crew given a ticker-tape reception in New York and an invitation to the White House. It then did an epic round-the-world voyage, and Zeppelins provided a regular transatlantic service in some style, with cabins, a restaurant (evening dress the norm) and a ballroom. The largest airship ever, the Hindenburg, was designed for helium, but had to use hydrogen instead when the US embargoed helium supplies to Nazi Germany. Its fatal fire at Lakehurst in 1937 killed 22 crew and 13 passengers of the 97 people on board, and marked the end of the Zeppelin era.

It was a technology that failed to complete with aeroplanes, despite the fact that lighter than air gas-lift did not use fuel to stay aloft. Airships have reappeared intermittently. Goodyear announced in 2011 that their blimps will be replaced by dirigible Zeppelin airships. And from 1980-1990, a series of Skyship 500 airships were used for advertising and tourist flights over major cities. I flew a Fuji one over London in the late-80s and found it a thrillingly different experience to a plane flight.

The day of the Zeppelin may yet return. They are quieter, more fuel efficient, and have less environmental impact. True, they are slower, but the continued presence of the ocean liner indicates that some people are prepared to undertake long-distance travel at a more leisurely pace. Perhaps, like the Orient Express, they will appeal to people wishing to relive the experience if a romantic past. One of the great things about free markets is that they allow niche preferences to be provided as an alternative to mainstream services. When the first of the new Zeppelins inaugurates a modern-day transatlantic service, I will be among the first to fly it - packing my dinner jacket, of course.