Why the Dream of the Airship Never Dies

A blimp larger than a 747 is about to take flight over Britain. Is a successful future for the blimp finally here, or is it just more hot air?

LONDON — Indulging the anal fixation that’s been the bedrock of popular British humor for centuries, a tabloid here suggested that the world’s largest flying machine, viewed from a certain angle, resembled Kim Kardashian’s bum. Gallantly I protest: the lady is far more elegant.

The Airlander is more than 300 feet long, more than 50 feet longer than a Boeing 747. And it does appear to have buttocks, since it is like two airships that have been conjoined, side-by-side—a bulbous conjoined twinning if you will.

This, the latest resurrection of that persistent anachronism, the airship, will take flight in a few weeks from an airfield 40 miles north of London.

Airships have always had a special place in the human imagination. In various forms and sizes they represented the ultimate in dreams of flight long before human flight was actually commonplace. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, two of the most influential futurists in literature, seeded the skies with airships and early silent motion pictures did the same. Alongside these elegant behemoths, early airplanes were pictured as ineffectual gnats. Airships were big, and big was surely the future, a future beyond the ability of wings.

But these dreamers were unable to project the evolution of the airplane beyond its rudimentary form, the biplane, which was really only a powered version of a kite. The airship was, on the other hand, a relatively giant leap for “lighter than air” flight, from the 19th century gas-filled balloon that carried men in a basket below, and because it was able to carry a lot more people in comfortable “gondolas” beneath its belly, the more likely to usher in the age of mass air travel.

This was a classic misreading of technical portents. The cumbersome airship was always bound to be a dead end, a stunted limb in the evolutionary tree of aviation. For a brief time in World War I the German Graf Zeppelins played the role forecast for them by Wells as a terror weapon as they rained bombs down on London in the first aerial bombardment of civilians. Then they were recast as the future of transatlantic luxury travel—until the Hindenburg was consumed in the flames of its own gas at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937.

Early in this century the Airlander’s first imagined role was not for carrying people but for military use.

It was developed for the U.S. Army, who called it a Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle, LEMT, rather than, simply an airship—proving that it always pays to be alert to the military’s gift for obscuring reality with its own clunky semantics. And sure enough, when the program costs ballooned (pun intended) the military dropped it and it was sold back its designers and current operators, Hybrid Air Vehicles, for $310,000.

The new iteration of the Airlander is powered by four turbocharged diesel engines and will be able to stay airborne for five days. Since it doesn’t need an airfield or airfield infrastructure—it can land and takeoff from just a relatively small open space—it is being promoted for its unique ability to carry equipment and freight packages too large for any cargo-carrying airplane (or helicopter) and deliver them directly to where they are needed. The market for a lifter like this is reckoned to be worth at least $50 billion over the next 20 years.

But, given that there is a lot of new technology in its construction and equipment, the Airlander still looks like an airship, moves like an airship and sounds like an airship. And airships have a habit of turning out be more a fantasy than a reality.

For example, the Army’s idea was to deploy the LEMT for battlefield surveillance in Afghanistan, where the skies are clear for much of the summer. This failed to anticipate the arrival of drones that could not only provide intelligence but also act on that intelligence with lethal effect.

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And here, with the military role, we come to the irresistible story of one Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, an accomplished 19th century balloonist from New Hampshire, who may well have been inspired to take flight to escape the name chosen for him by his mother from a Scottish romance novel.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Lowe decided to persuade President Lincoln of the future utility of balloons in warfare. He had studied prevailing winds and chose to ride them from Cincinnati to Washington—500 miles due east over the Allegheny Mountains and, ideally to a landing on the White House lawn.

Unfortunately the winds failed to oblige and deposited Lowe near Unionville in South Carolina—an epic flight of 650 miles in nine hours.

South Carolina was, of course, Confederate territory. The local cotton farmers who intercepted Lowe took him to be a Union spy, but Lowe told them he was just an innocent aeronaut who had been carried off course. Lowe (and his balloon) were released and sent on a coach to Kentucky, which had not seceded, and from there he finally made it to Washington.

In Washington Lowe staged a dramatic demonstration of the balloon’s usefulness for military surveillance by proving that from a balloon not only did he get a view of 50 miles in radius but that from the balloon he could transmit messages in Morse to the telegraph system.

With Confederate forces threatening Washington, this platform was clearly going to provide an indispensable military advantage.

Lincoln himself was so impressed that he called Lowe to the White House that evening and that is how the Union gained the Military Aeronautics Corps. In effect, Thaddeus Sobeiski Coulincourt Lowe was the pioneer of the dark art of aerial surveillance, of which spy satellites and drones are the modern spawn.

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There is a ghost at the airfield where the Airlander is based, at Cardington in Bedfordshire called the R101.

In 1930 the R101 was, like the Airlander, the world’s largest flying aircraft. Measuring 731 feet long, it was an airship operated by the British Air Ministry. Early in October that year the R101 set out from Cardington on its first flight—to India.

This was to be the showpiece of an ambitiously orchestrated commitment to two things: the official policy of building the world’s most powerful fleet of airships—and the future role of those airships on the long-distance routes linking Britain to its Empire.

Both objectives perished instantly a few hours after takeoff. Slowed down by an engine failure that made an already notoriously flawed machine more difficult to control, the R101 ran into bad weather over the English Channel and limped across northern France at low speed, swinging from its course in high turbulence and eventually diving into a field. After a relatively gentle impact the hydrogen in its tanks ignited and the whole airship was destroyed in minutes by fire.

On board were Britain’s Air Minister, several other government officials, and most of the country’s airship designers. All 54 people on board died (compared to 35 on the Hindenburg), one of the greatest disasters of the airship era. It also destroyed the official British interest in persisting with airships.

The Hindenburg disaster seven years later did the same for the German commitment to airships, finally proving that hydrogen was too dangerous to use for the “lighter than air” principle of flight.

Of course, today’s blimps and the Airlander use non-inflamable helium and the fire risk is minimal. But an obstinate limit on airship performance remains—the weather. In many parts of the world, including North America and Europe airships, no matter how their virtues are touted, they will be grounded by bad weather. Their size and relative slowness leaves them vulnerable to strong winds and turbulence.

To be sure, there is something truly majestic and almost other-worldly about a large and glittering slow-moving object in the sky, almost like an imagined visitation by friendly aliens who have navigated from some distant galaxy and whose machine, morphed from a rocket to a balloon, now casts a long shadow as they purr almost silently over a city. No airplane can match it in its appeal or mystery. Nonetheless, we are looking at yet another dream from the past, not the future.