Share This Article

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster

by John Swinfield, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2012, $45.95

 The product of eight years of exhaustive research, Airship may well be the ultimate account of the rise and fall of one of the most fascinating and dangerous modes of transportation ever devised. For almost 40 years, lighter-than-air airships vied with heavier-than-air craft for dominance. Early on, it seemed dirigibles might win out. They could carry a much greater payload than early airplanes and stay aloft far longer. But by 1918, driven by World War I, aviation technology had advanced to a point where the airplane’s efficiency was challenging that of the airship. One contributing factor was the Germans’ use of airships as strategic bombers against Britain, which compelled the British to develop higher-performance interceptors. During 1917 the high attrition rate among Zeppelins resulted in their being replaced by multi-engine airplanes.

By the mid-1930s, the handwriting was on the wall. The large rigid airship had proved to be a technological dead end, both expensive and unsafe. After successfully flying over the North Pole in 1926 with Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth in his semi-rigid airship Norge, in 1928 Umberto Nobile crashed in the Arctic in his next airship, Italia. Of the two giant airships constructed by the British for long-range passenger and mail transport, one crashed on its maiden flight in 1930 and the other was laid up after only one voyage, never to fly again. Both Akron and Macon, the two gigantic and very expensive aircraft-carrying airships built for the U.S. Navy in the early 1930s, crashed in the ocean.

Only Germany’s Zeppelin firm made a successful go of airships. Yet even its best efforts came to a catastrophic end on May 6, 1937, when Hindenburg burst into flames while landing at Lakehurst, N.J. Like most airship mishaps, Hindenburg’s demise was dramatic and very public; the German airship industry could not overcome its consequences.

Airship chronicles the history of dirigible development from the mid-19th century through the present day. It is a fascinating story of courage and technological innovation, tempered with political and bureaucratic interference, as well as conflicting civilian and military interests. Though written primarily from a British viewpoint, Airship gives equal coverage to Germany, the U.S., France, Italy and the Soviet Union. What emerges is the story of an enormous endeavor combining both technology and nationalism, not unlike the American and Soviet space race of the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, in their day the national programs established to develop giant airships were every bit as prestigious, ambitious and expensive as NASA’s space program.


Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.