the Dirigibles keep coming

Once balloons were outfitted with propulsion devices and thus became dirigibles (or airships), un-powered balloons were used primarily for upper atmosphere research. In July 1901, two ambitious German physicists, Berson and Surring, established an impressive altitude record of thirty-five thousand feet (10,668km) that was to stand for some thirty years. 

In the early decade of the twentieth century, airships developed along three lines: those that consisted of a balloon from which the power plant and the crew quarters dangled were known as non-rigid; airships with  a skeletal structure encasing a balloon and to which a crew compartment and propulsion system were attached were called semi-rigid; and airships that were made of a solid outer shell, with the passenger and crew compartments attached and which had balloons inflated inside, were known as rigid.

Alberto Santos-Dumont in his signature floppy hat. The Brazilian aeronaut created a sensation with his 1901 flight around the Eiffel Tower, depicted in an  imaginary aerial view by Eugene Grasset.

 Prior to 1904, when he turned his attention to airplanes, the pre-eminent builder of non-rigid airships was Alberto Santos-Dumont. His flights over Paris delighted the citizenry, particularly when a malfunction would result in a crash, from which the diminutive Brazilian was lucky to survive. He created a sensation in Paris (and entered aviation history) when he flew around the Eiffel Tower in his No. 6 and claimed the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize established in 1900. Santos-Dumont used his No. 14 airship to test his aircraft before his historic flight of 1906.

In the United States, the non-rigid airships being constructed by Thomas Baldwin were all the rage. The first aircraft purchased by the U.S. military was a Baldwin dirigible known as the SC1 Equipped with a Curtiss motorcycle engine, these machines were easy to transport. They found great use during World War I when they were used extensively by the British and French for offshore antisubmarine patrol.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, experimenters in flight investigated both heavier- and lighter-than-air machines. Thomas Baldwin and Glenn Curtiss test a Baldwin dirigible at Fort Myer on August 18, 1908.

Semi-rigid airships replaced non-rigid ones with the improvement of motors and propellers, and a streamlined design boosted speed. Several successful semi-rigid airships were built by Paul and Pierre Lebaudy before 1910, and they performed so well that several governments ordered them for their fleets. A typical Lebaudy airship might be two hundred feet (61m) long and thirty feet (9m) in diameter, powered by engines of 70 to 100 horse- power, carrying a crew of four, and capable of covering distances of several hundred miles at a  clip of forty-five to fifty miles per hour.

In England, the flamboyant American aerial showman Samuel E Cody teamed up with aerialist Colonel J.E. Capper to build the  Nulli Secundus (“Second to None”), a semi-rigid airship that amazed Londoners in flights on October 5, 1907, and became a popular attraction when exhibited at the Crystal Palace. (The airship was torn apart just five days into the exhibit, however.)

The semi-rigid airships were abandoned after 1911, but only because German rigid airships performed so much better. In the United States, semi-rigid airships did not fare so well: The America, a semi-rigid dirigible built by Walter Wellman, made two failed attempts to reach the North Pole and went down in the ocean during a 1906 attempt to cross the Atlantic. The crew was rescued, but one of them, Melville Vaniman, decided to try again. His ship, the Akron, caught fire and crashed off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on July 2, 1912, killing Vaniman and his crew of four.

The era of the rigid airships is easy to pinpoint: it begins on July 2, 1900, with the flight of the Luftschiff Zeppelin 1 (LZ 1), over Lake Constance, Germany, and it ends with the Hindenburg disaster on May 5, 1937. Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin had been an observer of the use of military balloons during the American Civil War, and soon became convinced that large dirigibles would be an effective means of air transportation.

The LZ 1, designed by chief engineer Ludwig Durr, was 420 feet (128m) long and thirty-eight feet (11 .5m) in diameter, with sixteen internal cells for lifting gas encased in a shell of aluminium and cotton.  The dirigibles built by Zeppelin’s company, DELAG, from LZ 1 to LZ 129 (the Hindenburg) varied in details, but they were all modelled on the principles established by the first one.

remains of the L33 during WW1

In the years prior to World War I, five DELAG Zeppelins (for by now the name had become synonymous with the aircraft) carried some thirty-five thousand passengers over long distances without mishap. The only fatalities were incurred in late 1913 when the two airships were on military missions. During World War I, Germany built more than one hundred airships for the purpose of bombing London, but these were no match even for the primitive fighters the British sent up against them. It was just as well, then, that the British rigid airship program never got off the ground. Its one attempt, the Vickers May fly, designed to be the largest then aloft (at 510 feet [155.5mj long), was torn apart by a strong wind as it was taken out of its hangar for a test flight.