Airship: from an early dawn to a golden age


By Steve Elliott our Science and Health correspondent

Airship – ship of the air, the very name conjures forth romantic, near ethereal visions of human beings achieving mastery of the skies, sailing a sea of cloud with Icarus.  Alas, Icarus fell from the skies – wax feather wing technology in his day having more to do with excessive ambition than science.  Airship technology for a long time having more to do with adventure than safety, assured the Icarus curse followed the airship wherever it sailed.

By our Science and Health correspondent

Airship – ship of the air, the very name conjures forth romantic, near ethereal visions of human beings achieving mastery of the skies, sailing a sea of cloud with Icarus.  Alas, Icarus fell from the skies – wax feather wing technology in his day having more to do with excessive ambition than science.  Airship technology for a long time having more to do with adventure than safety, assured the Icarus curse followed the airship wherever it sailed.

The French – born balloonists:
The French are intrinsically tied to the development of lighter than air balloon flight, it seems to be in their DNA.  Competition between hydrogen balloon technology and hot air balloon technology drove a race to the skies and the eventual achievement of the first manned lighter than air flight in the latter part of the 18th century.  

Hot air:
The Montgolfier brothers (Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne) famously developed the first successful lighter than air balloon technology.  One story has it that Joseph observed laundry drying over a fire forming pockets that billowed upwards carrying the material upwardly – inspiring his use of cloth for the first successful hot air technology balloon.  

On June 4th, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers kicked off the airship race when they gave their first ever public demonstration of an unmanned lighter than air 10 minutes balloon flight – the Montgolfière craft crossed 2 km and reached an estimated altitude of 1,600-2,000 m.

Just over 3 months later the Montgolfier brothers, at the royal palace in Versailles before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, sent the first ever balloonists skywards: a sheep, a duck and a rooster.  

Success and a place in the history books for all time quickly followed.  Eventually, winning the race on October 15, 1783, Étienne Montgolfier was the first human to lift off from the Earth (albeit tethered) from the yard of the Réveillon workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

Just over a month later on 21 November 1783, the adventurous Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozière, together with an army officer, the Marquis d’Arlandes, went on to carry out the first free untethered flight by human beings in a Montgolfière balloon.  Sadly, Francois Pilâtre de Rozière and his companion Pierre Romain, became the first known fatalities in an air crash near Wimereux in the Pas-de-Calais while attempting to cross the English Channel in a combination Mongolfière/hydrogen balloon.  

Hydrogen gas balloon development had proceeded almost in parallel with the work of the Montgolfier brothers since the discovery of hydrogen 17 years earlier (1766) by the chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish.  Cavendish had added sulphuric acid to iron, tin, or zinc shavings and observed a lighter than air, flammable gas released in large quantities – hydrogen gas – relatively inexpensive and easy to manufacture.

Hydrogen balloon technology was quickly becoming an attractive alternative to hot air since no fuel was required to keep a hydrogen balloon aloft and to descend one simply released some hydrogen gas from the balloon.

To the wondrous anticipation of 400,000 onlookers, the first free flight untethered manned hydrogen balloon flight was launched from the Champ de Mars (now the site of the Eiffel Tower) in Paris on December 1st.  It was filled with hydrogen that had been made by pouring nearly a quarter of a tonne of sulphuric acid onto a half a tonne of scrap iron.  The hydrogen gas was fed into the balloon via lead pipes but the gas was hot when produced and as it cooled in the balloon it contracted, finally taking a full 10 days to fill up the balloon.  Daily progress bulletins were issued on the state of the balloon’s inflation.  Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert flew La Charlière, for 2 hours 5 minutes and covered 36 km.

This event took place just ten days after the world’s first untethered manned hot air balloon flight by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozière using a Montgolfière.  The Montgolfières had effectively won the race into the history books, it doesn’t pay to come in second place: most school kids know about the Montgolfier brothers, few have heard of Jacques Charles and les frères Robert, or Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin for that matter.  Yet, the Montgolfière technology was clearly impractical for long voyages due to fuel requirements, technology usually wins any race in the end.

The first airship: a dirigible (from the French verb diriger – to direct, to steer):
Deadly dangerous always, deterred never.  The desire for lighter than air flight overcame the evident fatality of the enterprise and aerial innovation persevered with Frenchman Henri Giffard developing the first true airship in 1867 – a steam-driven, engine-powered navigable balloon.   Lighter than air flight Innovation soared ever onwards and upwards leading to improved hydrogen balloon technology: airships powered with electric motors, propeller steered and piloted by an indefatigable spirit of adventure – some of these spirits were killed, some survived – hydrogen being one of the most unforgiving flammable gases there is.

Airships – the golden age:

The AIRSHIP, the grandiose opulent ship of the skies, luxury berths, bars, restaurants – entirely in tune with the lifestyles of the rich and famous; Fritz Lang’s visionary future world of Metropolis come to life.

The state of airship art culminated in the era of the giant rigid airship in Germany with the advent of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s famous namesake.  Zeppelins amazed, enthralled and captivated the imagination, assuming a near mythical power in the German psyche: like ‘fabulous silver fish’, said Dr Hugo Eckener, head of Zeppelin from 1917, ‘floating quietly in the ocean of air.’

Zeppelins operated regular transatlantic flights from Germany to North America – the Art Deco spire of the Empire State Building originally being designed, albeit impractical, as a dirigible docking terminal for Zeppelins and other airships.  With simple streamline aesthetic grace and the industry of imagination, Icarus be damned, humanity had conquered gravity and mastered the skies.

The Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg was the latest advance in dirigible flight technology, its 16 gasbags (cells) were to be filled with that rare, hard to find, nearly impossible to make (German chemists were the best in the world at that time), non-explosive, non-reactive lighter than air gas, helium – supplied by the US.

On March 26, 1895, Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay was the first to isolate helium on Earth.  Helium, the second most abundant element in the known universe, is a relatively rare element on Earth.  However, it is a naturally occurring constituent in natural gas reserves (~7% helium) and at the time of the Hindenburg was extracted on a large-scale using fractional distillation in huge quantities from under the American Great Plains, Hugoton and nearby gas fields in southwest Kansas and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.  This enabled the United States to become the world’s leading supplier of helium, the US eventually holding the largest stockpile of helium the world has ever seen (by the end of the 20th century 1 billion cubic metres of the gas had been collected).

In fact, only the US possessed helium in useful quantities but following the establishment of the Third Reich, Hermann Göring, the German Air minister, formed a new airline in 1935, the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei (DZR), which took over operation of airship flights.  Zeppelins would now display the Nazi swastika on their fins and occasionally tour Germany to play march music and propaganda speeches for the people from the air.  America refused to supply German swastika-adorned Zeppelins with US helium and instead a decision to use flammable hydrogen was made.

The dirigible airship – the  end of an era:
At 7:25 p.m. On May 6, 1937, disaster struck fatally and horribly.  Flight LZ 129 arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, after an Atlantic crossing it had made many times before.  As welcoming cameras rolled it was suddenly consumed by fire.  A probable combination of leaking hydrogen from a torn gas bag and static electricity sparks saw the Hindenburg consumed from nose to tail by fire, crashing to the ground in 37 seconds.  A total of 36 lives lost, 13 passengers and 22 crew of the 97 people on board and one of the ground crew perished.

Screaming into his microphone, radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s words travelled round the world: ‘Get out of the way!  It’s burning, bursting into flames!  This is terrible!  It is one of the worst catastrophes in the world!  Oh the humanity!  Those passengers!  I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen.  Honest, it is a mass of smoking wreckage.’

Herbert Morrison, witnessing the end of the Hindenburg:

With this disaster imprinted on the public consciousness via film and radio – film of the Hindenburg’s fiery demise was seen in Pathe news flashes in cinemas around the world.  This and the Titanic sinking (April 15th 1912 at 2:20 am) still shocking the collective memory, counting 1,517 lost souls, saw the dirigible flight industry take a deep hit.

This disaster was not however, as is commonly believed, the real reason the era of the airship came to an end.  Despite the inferno fireball images, there remained a list of 400 people who still wanted to fly as Zeppelin passengers and had paid for the trip.  Whatever caused the disaster, the end of the dirigible era was due to politics and the looming war, not the wreck itself, though it surely led to some tangible public misgivings.  Once the dust settled, it was clear it had become the age of ‘heavier than air flight’.

The airplane, less graceful but a much faster and much more efficient weapon of war was to win the air transportation battle against dirigibles as the technology of choice for the 20th century.  Yet, a battle victorious in the 20th century is not necessarily a war won in the 21st…

Pathe News, the Hindenburg disaster:

In PART II we’ll look at the current state of the airship art – a new golden age for the ship of the skies.