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Q: Early Airship design and development ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Early Airship design and development
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: wolvies-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 09 May 2003 07:32 PDT
Expires: 08 Jun 2003 07:32 PDT
Question ID: 201580
(My last major question for a while, due to monetary issues so thought
I would go out with a big one)

Similar to my question on radio (which was answered excellently) I am
interested in a potted history of the development of airship design. I
am especially interested in when long-distance flight became possible
even if it was not carried through. I am aware that in the early part
of WW1 a Zeppellin was intended to fly from Europe to Tanzania but
turned back because the landing ground could no longer be guaranteed.
How much of a feat was this, and is the reason it was not common
simply because no one had a need to do this? How much greater
development was there between WW1-era airships and those such as the
R-101 offering commercial travel for the first time? By the time of
the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppellin, had there been significant
technological advances or were the changes more like linear
development of existing technology?

Specifically a focus of the question is when it became possible to
traverse long distances in relative safety (ignoring dramatic
disasters) even if the technology which existed was not used to this
end for commercial, political or military reasons.

Please ask for clarification if any of the above has been too
Subject: Re: Early Airship design and development
Answered By: omnivorous-ga on 09 May 2003 13:56 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Wolvies - -

This question lives up to your standards for excellence.

As you’re aware, researchers pick topics as much for personal interest
as for answerability.  This researcher is fascinated by anything
related to flight and have even flown in an airship once (a Goodyear

Let’s first start with some background information:

BALLOONS: are lighter-than-air craft with no active direction control
in their structure.

History: Jacques …tienne and Joseph Michel Montgolfier were the first
to use hot air to fly lighter-than-air craft, starting with a fire on
the ground to inflate a balloon with hot air in 1782.  Their first
test flight from the Palace of Versailles had a sheep, a rooster and a
duck aboard on September 19, 1783.    The first "manned" free flight
was November 21, 1783 when Pil‚tre de Rozier and the Marquis
d'Arlandes flew from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and flew for 5-6
miles (8-10 km) and as high as 3,000 feet (1,000m). Benjamin
Franklin’s diaries show that he was among those in Paris who were
astounded by the developments.

Experiments for the next 100 years tried a variety of ways to steer
balloons, from paddles to fans.  By 1872, several German and French
inventors had found ways to steer cigar-shaped balloons with electric-
or steam-drive engines.

BLIMPS: steerable (or dirigible) lighter-than-air craft with non-rigid

History: The first of the category was "La France," built with a
balloon envelope of Chinese silk, a bamboo car and an electric motor
to propel it at speeds of 14+ mph (23 km/h) in 1884.

ZEPPELINS: a steerable lighter-than-air craft with a RIGID structure,
most often a long, cylindrical body.

History: Named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917), who
made his first ascent while serving as a volunteer in the Federal army
during the American Civil War.  In 1871 he started plans for a large
rigid airship with multiple gas compartments.  In 1891 he retired from
the German Army to pursue his designs, incorporating his company in

The first of his designs was 388,410 cubic feet, 420’ (135.5m) long
and 38’ (12.3m) in diameter.  It differed from earlier designs in
having an aluminum frame, and used longitudinal girders; rings; and
diagonal wiring for the structure.  The exterior was covered in cotton
cloth for protection and better aerodynamics.  In addition to the
structural advances, Zeppelin’s designs incorporated gasoline engines
with propellers, giving them speeds of about 14 mph (22 km/h).

However, his first three designs crashed.  Still Zeppelin persevered
and by 1907 was able to attain speeds of 30-36 mph with his
dirigibles.  His continuing advances led to formation of the German
Airship Transportation Co. (known as "Delag") in 1910.  Before the
outbreak of World War I it had launched 5 airships and carried more
than 34,000 passengers.

DEVELOPMENT ISSUES:  The first 40 years of aviation history during the
20th Century saw major advancements in structural strength and
engines, whether for Wright Brothers’ style heavier-than-air craft or
for Zeppelins.

During World War I there were 88 Zeppelins built in Germany, some with
wooden girders (by the Schutte-Lanz Company – not in the 4 Delag
plants).  As in World War II, the lighter-than-air craft were most
effectively used for long distance patrols at sea.

During the war period sizes increased to more than 2.1 million cubic
feet and useful loads from 9 to 44 metric tons.  Speed also increased
from 46 mph (74 km/h) at the beginning of the war to 87 mph (141

But with the increased size came problems.  Early designs were built
for static loads but in weather, the larger airships were experiencing
dynamic loads that would cause fatigue  in the structure - - worse. 
At the end of World War I, the British built R-38, a 2.7 million cubic
foot blimp which incorporated many Zeppelin design aspects.  On test
flights it showed structural and control weaknesses.  Then on Aug. 24,
1921 it broke apart in flight, killing 45 American and British
military officers.  Similar structural problems destroyed other
British and American designs during the 1930s, even with steel and
duraluminum construction.

The R-101 was one such design, using steel frame and Diesel engines. 
It crashed at Beauvais, France (just north of Paris) on October 5,
1930, killing 47 persons, including Lord Thomson, the British air

The leading designs - - and leading use for transportation - -
continued to come from the Zeppelin company in Germany.  The LZ-127
was better known as the Graf Zeppelin: it was 3.7 million cubic feet
and made 578 flights in 9 years, crossing the North Atlantic 139
times.  With this airship the fiction of Jules Verne’s “Around the
World in 80 Days” became possible – Dr. Hugo Eckener piloted the
aircraft around the world in 20 days and 4 hours in 1929.

LZ-128 or the "Hindenburg" was even bigger: more than 7 million cubic
feet and capable of carrying 50 passengers in luxurious
accommodations.  The Hindenburg now had four 1,100 horsepower Diesel
engines in a conventional Zeppelin design of longitudinal girders and
wire-braced cross-frames.  The Hindenburg’s 15 gas cells could carry
either helium or hydrogen, but helium’s supply was a problem.  Only
the United States was a source and by 1937 tensions were already
rising between the U.S. and Germany.  In addition, helium was about
$10 per 1,000 cubic feet - - and hydrogen was only $1 per 1,000 cubic
feet.  On May 6, 1937 the rest of the story became history at
Lakehurst, NJ.  The Navy Lakehurst website includes not just photos
but the radio broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster:
Navy Lakehurst Historical Society
"Hindenburg (LZ-129)"

To get to some of your specific questions:
1.	early World War I era airships neither had the size nor the speed
to accomplish a comfortable trip from Europe to Tanzania.  However, as
the war progressed Zeppelins were used for long-distance raids.   In
November, 1917 the L-59 flew from Bulgaria to just west of Khartoum in
an air raid that covered 4,225 miles.
2.	the immediate post-war period halted airship development as the
Allies took over Zeppelin plants.  However, by 1924 the Zeppelin
factories were delivering airships to overseas customers.
3.	the heydays of Zeppelin development were in the late 1920’s and
1930’s, as size increased along with speed (thanks to new engine
technologies) and range.

Compounding the problems of airship management on the ground are their
vulnerability to weather and the size of crews needed to moor them. 
As you know, the landing airship has to be captured by a ground crew,
then led to mooring masts.  Rarely are blimp hangars available,
especially in Tanzania. . .

Much of the background for this answer comes from Thomas A. Knowles’
article in the 1944 Encyclopedia Britannica on airshiops.  Knowles was
vice-president of American Zeppelin Transport, Inc. and a former
development engineer for Goodyear Aircraft Corp.

By the way, during World War II much of the West Coast of the U.S. was
patrolled from a series of blimp bases, often in remote areas like
Samoa, CA or Quillayute, WA.  One of my favorites, preserved as a
bed-and-breakfast, is the Samoa B&B, run by Shauna and Don Burrows:
Samoa Airpot B&B

Other resources:

There are two excellent videos, both produced by The History Channel,
which profile the history of the airship:
"The Hindenburg," 1996 which covers the history of the well-known
airship and the challenges of Ferdinand Zeppelin in developing it.

A second is "Modern Marvels: Airships," which does a history of the
development from balloons to modern airships.  These movies and other
resources are listed on an excellent web page maintained by John
"Documentaries" (Jan. 29, 2003)

For a little different perspective, you might consider learning what
it takes to fly a blimp:
Sporty’s Pilot Shop
"Flying the Blimp"

Google search strategy:
airship + Zeppelin + development

Wolvies - - thanks for the great question.  The stars seem to be with
me: even the Google ads at the top of the question have helium
remote/control balloons at the top - - guess what I’ll be seeking for
Father’s Day?

Best regards,


Request for Answer Clarification by wolvies-ga on 09 May 2003 14:32 PDT
Am most fascinated by the hiatus between the end of WW1 and the
resumption of design by the zep co in 1924. I am as ever seeking to
see if a greater will or a greater need would have spurred development
earlier. Was much changed between 1918 and 1924 or did they pick up
with the same ideas? Was the R-101 an entirely new concept btw or just
the latest of a line, the biggest yet that had the misfortune to

Tip of course available for especially detailed answers :)

Clarification of Answer by omnivorous-ga on 10 May 2003 08:11 PDT

Ah, now we can get down to some specifics: the immediate post-war
period for airship designs.

It's not clear from Internet and other resources available here when
the Zeppelin manufacturing plants were returned to German control
after World War I and began design work anew.  It must have been in
1921 or 1922 because by 1924 their designs were being sold abroad. 
(Some print and library sources below may have more precise details on
German Zeppelin manufacturing.)  After the Hindenburg disaster,
interest in rigid Zeppelin designs declined and most World War II
designs were non-rigid blimps.

Knowles' article notes that after the R-38 disaster, British activity
in airships was suspended until 1924 when the R-100 was built "on a
rather modified Zeppelin type of design."  The R-101 was contracted
for a built at the same time by the Air Ministry (the R-100 built by
Airship Guaranty Company, a subsidiary of Vickers) and is described by
him as deviating from German designs by using steel (not aluminum
alloy) girders and Diesel engines.  Note that at this time, heavier
Diesel engines were capable of far higher horsepower output that
gasoline engines, particularly since superchargers or turbochargers
were two decades away.

After the 1930 crash the British government scrapped its program
entirely.  Clearly British (as well as American, Italian and Russian)
designs did not achieve the structural strength that Zeppelin designs
continued to advance during the 1930s.  There was just that matter of
inability to obtain helium . . .

In the U.S., development was slow.  In fact the U.S. Army purchased an
Italian design in 1921 and a German Zeppelin design (christened the
'Los Angeles") in 1924.  U.S. design work by Goodyear was largely on
non-rigid airships.

Knowles, writing in 1944, says that "modern rigid airships differ from
early Zeppelin concept mostly in the perfection of design detail,"
which would lead one to the conclusion that it was the engineering
rather than the materials science which limited development.  He cites
the chief accomplishments of the Zeppelin design as being: one or more
keels within the hull; multiple gas cells under low pressure; placing
non-aerodynamic mechanisms in the hull; and inexpensive skin materials
(early gas cell fabrics used gold leaf).

A Google search using R-100 and R-101 yields some detailed pages about
the two British designs:
Airship Heritage Trust


There's a tremendous personal web page put together by Alan Akeroyd on
the R-101.  It includes several pictures, as well as a list of four
books on the R101:
Alan Akeroyd Home Page

The University of Akron has assembled an excellent bibliography of
airship sources, particularly on design issues of the 1930's.  One
page has 10 citations on the R-101 and its design:
University of Akron: "The Dr. Karl Arnstein Papers"
"British Designs"

Though this University of Akron inventory only has titles of some
reports and correspondence, it's clear that structural design flaws -
particularly the dynamic loads being experienced in flight - - were a
major concern.  In particular, you'll want to see the Series B papers
on airships, including cooperation between the U.S. and Germany on
design issues:
University of Akron
"The Dr. Karl Arnstein Papers"

There are echoes of serious design problems with both the R-100 and
R-101 in several web pages, including this one from  The
R-101's performance failed to meet specifications, resulting in design
changes after completion.  Others report that flight tests failed but
it was pressed into service:
"Navgoof - the Dirigible R101" (N.W. Emmott) -- undated

Already referenced above in the Akeroyd bibliography is Masefield and
Kimber's book, "To Ride the Storm," written in 1982 about the R-101. 
You'll find a comprehensive review of it here:
Nevil Shute Foundation
"To Ride the Storm" - review by Andy Burgess (undated)

For the clarification, I refined the Google search strategy:
R-101 + R-100 + Zeppelin (note that this returns more page hits than
deleting the '-' or dash from the airship model number)

Search strategies using the following two techniques weren't very
satisfactory in turning up Internet resources.  Instead, it appears to
be most fruitful to seek out the 4 books referenced by Mr. Ackeroyd
and use museum and bibliographic sources cited in the links above:
Zeppelin + history
"Zeppelin manufacturing" + history

Best regards,

wolvies-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00
Thank you very much! And it is always good to know the researcher
enjoys answering the question. I will seek down all your links - I so
far looked at the Hindenburg one and was impressed. Thanks again, and
I will be back when money permits. This is a truly excellent service

Subject: Re: Early Airship design and development
From: omnivorous-ga on 11 May 2003 06:16 PDT
Wolvies --

Thank you very much for the rating and extra sum.  Researchers with an
interest in the topic will often have detailed insights into issues,
as well as a shelf full of books and magazines with background on the

What I found interesting about this one was that the Internet links
were so varied: the Karl Arnstein site at the University of Akron and
numerous UK-based sites, including several personal pages.

What's missing on the 'Net is the story from the point of view of the
most-successful of the airship companies -- a story from those close
to Zeppelin or Delag.

Best regards,

Subject: Re: Early Airship design and development
From: omnivorous-ga on 07 Jun 2003 07:40 PDT
Wolvies --

The current (June 7, 2003)copy of The New Yorker has an article titled
"The Light Stuff: Not Everyone Can Pilot the Goodyear Blimp" with some
additional historical material.  Unfortunately it's not available

However, it may be available in the U.K. at the newstand or in
libraries (it's a Conde Naste publication).

Best regards,


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