Are Airships In Our Future?

Some people say there’s no such thing as a coincidence, mostly because they believe that things happen for a reason, either fate or a higher power. Logical statisticians will tell you that random pairings will always occur in large numbers of events. As for me, I’m not too sure how they happen but I believe they do. In fact, I’ve had some really strange ones that I’ve written about before. HERE and HEREny2

Which brings us to today’s coincidence, which isn’t nearly as impressive as the two I’ve written about before. In this case, I’d just finished reading a very good new science fiction novel titled New York 2140, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s a fascinating look at how life might be in the world — and especially New York — over a hundred years in the future, if we let global warming continue. For one thing, rising oceans have turned coastal cities like New York into giant versions of Venice, with most of the streets becoming canals. People have to get around with water taxis and buses or other boats of various kinds, and of course the traffic is just as bad.

But it’s another aspect of the book that began my coincidence pairing. It seems that in this future they would be using airships extensively, not only to carry people but also huge amounts of freight. I’ve always had an interest in airships, and with the book fresh in mind it was probably inevitable that I’d happen to spot an article about them. (So maybe not an actual coincidence?) Here’s that article and it’s a good one, but be sure and come back after you read it because I’ll continue to give you my two cents worth, and eventually we’ll get to some music too.

headerAs it said in the article, airships are commonly known by other names, including dirigibles and Zeppelins, but a blimp is a different animal. The most famous example for years has been the Goodyear blimp, which is pretty typical. It’s basically a big football-shaped balloon with a gondola hanging below it. But true airships have a framework with an outer covering, and the gas that causes them to rise is in a bunch of inflatable sacs that fill most of the space in the structure. However, there’s still room for cabins, crews quarters, and other spaces, even a dining room and lounge, which gave rise to their use as a sort of flying cruise ship early in the Twentieth Century.

The use of airships in the book I just read isn’t really far-fetched because people have been trying for the last century to figure out a way to profitably — and safely — use airships to carry passengers and freight too. That was the thinking back in the 1920’s, when England built two huge airships and put them to work. Unfortunately one of the two soon went down in a fiery crash and the second one was retired. (Again, if you want more detail on British efforts you can refer to the article I linked above.)Zeppelin_diagram

But that didn’t put a stop to airship development everywhere. The Zeppelin company in Germany had built airships for many years, and continued to develop them well into the 1930’s. (And lend their name to all airships — and a rock band too.) They proved to be pretty successful, and in 1937 plans were made for a series of transatlantic voyages on the Hindenburg. It was the pride of the fleet and the video below shows how much like a cruise ship the immense thing was.

The Hindenburg had already made a smooth trip to Rio and back, so the next step was a round-trip between Germany and the United States. The trip went fine but when anchoring in New Jersey something went wrong and history was made. Below are two videos that show the famous disaster. The first is a short one with color and sound that’s pretty familiar to most of us. The second one is longer and silent but is backed by music, and it’s a fascinating exploration of the operation of the Hindenburg, one that helps you understand just how massive it was. It shows it flying and landing, passengers descending, and just about everything else, including people hanging out and waving from its many windows. It also ends with a view of the famous fiery crash.

With the Hindenburg disaster and memories of the earlier problems in England dogging them, airships eventually fell from favor with most. Helium was much too expensive and didn’t have the lifting power they needed, so highly flammable hydrogen was their only practical solution. And even though they thought its use could be managed, public perception pretty much doomed it. But in the years since, the cost of helium has come way down and smart designers are also finding ways to cut the weight of the airship itself and make other improvements, so maybe airships will be a reality in our future.

And now for some more music. First up is a rare old piece of film that purports to be a pianist performing on the Hindenburg itself. After that is something a little lighter.


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