the author provides a lively and absorbing account of the major stages in developing airships and provides accounts of the great airship disasters of the 1930s that effectively killed off mainstream development of airships
NAME: Airship, Design, Development and Disaster
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: John Swinfield
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Airships, lighter-than-air, dirigible, rigid airship, semi-rigid aircraft, powered balloons, aircraft carriers, mothership, bombers, non-rigid airships
DESCRIPTION: This is a book that initially disappoints because does not cover the work since 1940 to develop new types of lighter-than- air vehicles. In reading it, disappointment is rapidly swept away because the author provides a lively and absorbing account of the major stages in developing airships and provides accounts of the great airship disasters of the 1930s that effectively killed off mainstream development of airships. Then there is a second sense of disappointment because the author could have continued to bring the story up to date. Perhaps there is a second book still to be written. Of course an author has to draw lines somewhere and what has been produced is a very worthy book that includes a very good selection of images to enhance the text further.
The hot air balloon provided a starting point for lighter-than-air craft that was low technology and relatively simple to build. A child can build a simple hot air balloon by using a paper bag for the envelope and adding a simple platform on which to place the burning material to create the hot air. The man-carrying hot air balloon may be much more sophisticated, but it is still relatively simple in construction. The hydrogen balloon took the concept further by providing a dependable lift that did not include the ever present danger of the fire getting out of control and burning the hot air balloon’s envelope.
However, both types of balloon were completely at the mercy of the wind. Once a balloon was cast off from its securing cables, it would meet wind of differing strengths and directions as it rose. Unlike a sailing vessel, it had no means of tacking to take a deliberate course by using an unfavourable wind to produce a favourable direction of travel. The result was that the balloon became, in the form of the hydrogen balloon, a static observation post that was taken to a battlefield, the gas generated by a generator wagon, the envelope inflated, and then reeled out on its anchor rope to give its occupants a view of the battlefield, allowing them to send intelligence of enemy positions to the ground and to correct artillery fire. In this role, the hydrogen balloon could be a sphere that equally contained the hydrogen gas, and the basket containing the occupants could be suspended from the envelop by a net of ropes. It was still a relatively simple device that did not require any great technology, but it whetted the appetite of the military.
Even during the Napoleonic Wars, then RN frigate captain Cockrane was considering how balloons could be used from warships, carrying fire or poison gas to the enemy. This was really a new view of deploying fireships, which had been a naval tactic dating back to ancient times, when a fireship could be released under a favourable wind to drift down into a moving or anchored collection of enemy vessels.
The Royal Navy decided that balloons offered more problems than solutions afloat and instead invested in experiments with man-carrying kites in 1903, just as the airship’s nemesis, the aeroplane, was making its first hesitant efforts at controlled flight. By that time, the balloon had already developed into the airship.
The evolution had been slow and the primary problem for solution was the identification of a suitable power source for locomotion. Many different ideas were tried, including the use of steam engines, but the airship, like the aeroplane had to wait for the development of the internal combustion engine. By the time that the first engines arrived, the airship had already adopted the cylindrical shape that was to visually separate it from the balloon. In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it seemed that the aeroplane was an interesting diversion and the airship was the way forward for commercial and military flight. The early aeroplanes were dwarfed by the contemporary airships and looked no more than flimsy toys.
The German Army and Navy were quick to adopt the Zeppelin airships and to experiment with a number of smaller designs. At an early stage, the German Navy saw the potential for reconnaissance and bombing, leading in WWI to the German terror raids on British civilians. The Royal Navy, already engaged in an arms race with Germany, initially failed to see some of the flaws in the Zeppelin design and the 1909 Admiralty Estimates included the funds for Airship No 1. This airship was appropriately named Mayfly and was an almost total disaster, which probably explains why Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with his gift for making disastrous decisions, was keen to take it as the starting point from which to measure one hundred years to the FlyNavy100 celebrations in 2009.
The author has provided a very good account of development during this period and the British use of non-rigid ‘blimps’ for very successful coastal patrol during WWI. There have been several versions of how the term ‘blimp’ came into being. One leading stories is that an airshipman pinched the fabric of a non-rigid airship and observed that it made the sound ‘blimp’. An alternative version is that a non-rigid airship looked like a useless, bloated gasbag, ‘Colonel Blimp’, a caricature of the opinionated but obsolete senior soldier.
While the Germans concentrated on developing the reliability and capacity of the Zeppelin and the other rigid and semi-rigid airships in its fleets, and the RNAS concentrated on bombing German airships in the air and on the group, the airship proving difficult to shoot down, until the arrival of incendiary bullets, the Royal Navy decided to spread its bets on a mixed development programme of which the non-rigid SS and SSZ airships proved very successful and economic as convoy escorts and reconnaissance machines. The SSZ introduced a specially designed car to hold the crew and engine, but the earlier SS airship employed an obsolescent aircraft fuselage, with the envelope replacing the wings. Rigid, Zeppelin-style, airships were also built and the Class 23 became the first aerial aircraft carriers at a time when the RN was also pioneering the aircraft carrier as a surface ship and planning the first submarine aircraft carrier M2.
The author has pointed out that submarines and airships shared many features and their crews were not highly regarded by the traditional surface ship sailors. Both vehicles operated in environments where they altered their position vertically by becoming lighter or heavier than the medium in which they sailed. The submarine had an easier task because taking on ballast was possible at any time by simply opening valves to allow air to escape from the ballast tanks. Once the compressed air cylinders were becoming depleted, the submarine could surface, still continuing on its way, and use its engines to recharge batteries and compressed air tanks. The airship had the extra challenge that new ballast could only be taken on by mooring at an airship station and having water pumped in from a supply on the ground. Similarly, once its gasbags were depleted, it was necessary to moor to the ground and have fresh gas piped aboard. Both the submarine and the airship shed ballast and gas as part of the continuing process of maintaining depth or altitude. In the case of the airship, there were two additional pressures on supplies of ballast and gas. Sunlight on the envelope would heat the gas in the internal gasbags and eventually could require gas to be vented to avoid the enlarged bags chafing or bursting. If the airship had rain falling on the surface of the envelope, that increased weight, requiring ballast to be jettisoned.
The author has then covered the between war period when Germany, Britain and the US were building small numbers of very large rigid airships, most of which ended up in major disasters that persuaded customers and manufacturers to concentrate on aeroplane design and development. Count Zeppelin and Britain’s Barnes Wallis were the giants of the airship industry. Wallis producing some of the very few designs of successful British airship before achieving fame in developing geodetic construction for military aircraft, conceiving and designing the dam busting bomb and then the even more successful 5 and 10 ton earthquake bombs, a design still in use for bunker-busting as an alternative to nuclear bombs, and completing his long and remarkable career designing super-sonic transport and bomber aircraft.
The age of the airship came to an end during WWII, when the Graf Zeppelin saw its final missions attempting to gather electronic intelligence to measure the effectiveness of British radar, and the Goodyear Blimp was used by he US Navy successfully as an updated version of the British WWI SS and SSZ non-rigid airships.
This book is well-written, built on careful research. It is also lavishly illustrated with images in photo plate sections and sketches in the body of text, one plate section being in full colour.
The author has looked into some of the reasons why airships failed. With the exception of the German development program under the enthusiastic work of Count Zeppelin, airships were never consistently developed because of a general lack of enthusiasm. The result was that even Germany built relatively few airships and deployed them in conditions that were unfavourable by exposing them to attack on bombing raids that were better handled by bomber aircraft. British efforts included cloning German designs without fully understanding why the captured examples had been designed as they had been. Against this handful of airships, the aircraft was being built in tens of thousands. The airship was subject to far fewer disasters than aeroplanes, but every airship disaster was spectacular and attracted great publicity, whilst aeroplanes crashed from structural failure and design defects that were less well publicized. The huge number of aeroplanes also provided a great deal more experience and led to better structure and configuration knowledge. Typically, if an aeroplane engine failed on take off, the consequences were usually fatal, but there might only be a crew of one, and very few people might have observed the crash. In the same way, early aeroplanes often shed wings in flight or suffered some other serious structural failure, but their designers learned from errors that often avoided widespread publicity.
Where the book finishes, the airship story continues. The airship has never achieved its full promise, never been used in the large numbers that the aeroplane has achieved, but also never having died out. From 1945 to the 1990s, the airship has been based largely on the ‘blimp’ and operated as a small airship. It has however adopted new technologies and uses inert gas in place of the potentially volatile hydrogen gas. In common with the original SS and SSZ blimps, the more recent machines have provided accommodation similar to contemporary aircraft and similar engines have been used. Some airships have also employed variable thrust ducted fans to assist during take off and landing and to make the airship more manoeuvrable in flight. The envelope and gas cells have also taken advantage of new fabrics to produce a more durable and reliable method of accommodating the gas.
More recently, the airship has made a number of significant advances, particularly as an Un-manned Aerial Vehicle. It is now seeming very likely that the airship is on the point of major development, combining gas lift and lifting body technology to produce large airships as relatively low cost reconnaissance and intelligence gathering platforms that can remain in the air for extended periods and compete directly with orbiting satellites. At the same time interest in using airships as passenger and freight carriers has continued to surface periodically. One of the most enduring concepts, as yet not developed, has been in the development of airships that never moor, but circle the globe at a set altitude and are loaded and unloaded by helicopters or other methods that avoid a need to stop. This may all be yet another false dawn, where enthusiasm fails to evolve into action and construction.