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Lighter Than Air: The History of Airships

Date: February 16, 2018 Category: Blog Tags: , ,
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Long before the Wright Brothers’ famous flight, early aviation pioneers experimented with lighter-than-air aircraft and proved that controlled flight was within reach. From the Hindenburg disaster to the Goodyear Blimp, here’s a closer look at the fascinating history of airships.

Early airship designs were inspired by the invention of the hot air balloon 1783. In 1784, French mathematician Jean Baptiste Meusnier drew the plans for an inflatable airship that could be controlled with propellers and a rudder, much like today’s blimps, which have no rigid internal structure.

In 1852, a French engineer named Henri Giffard used Meusnier’s design to build the world’s first powered airship using a 3-horsepower steam engine and three-bladed propeller. This early airship traveled nearly 17 miles at a rate of about six miles per hour but could not be easily controlled in heavy winds. The first fully controllable airship, the French Army’s La France, made a series of successful flights in 1884.

By the end of the 19th century, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin built the first rigid airship, which had an internal aluminum structure and individual gas cells filled with hydrogen to provide lift. These successful airships, named zeppelins, were first used commercially to carry passengers and were later used in World War I by the German, French, and Italian military for scouting and bombing missions.

The USS Shenandoah was the first American-built rigid airship, manufactured for the US Navy. Unlike other airships at the time, Shenandoah used helium as its lifting gas instead of hydrogen. Five Packard 6-cylinder engines and large, custom-designed wooden Hartzell propellers powered the airship, which became the first rigid airship to fly successfully across North America on a 19-day journey from New Jersey to California in 1924. 

After a number of airship incidents occurred in the 1930s, including the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen was replaced with helium gas to lift airships. Helium, while more expensive, is non-flammable and proved much safer for airship use. Over time, airship use decreased as airplanes exceeded their capacities for speed, control, and safety. Today, airships are designed with natural buoyancy and use either helium or heated air for lift. Modern airships are used for aerial observation, photography, geological surveying and research, advertising, and tourism.

Image credit: By USN [Public domain].

Hartzell Propeller