Airships will forever be tainted by the tragic events of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, however once upon a time they were not only the most luxurious way to travel, but also the fastest. So could they ever make a comeback?
When we think about the future of travel, speed is often a defining factor, with journey time dictating the rise and fall of so many forms on transport. As airship expert and editor of airships.net Dan Grossman explains, this can also be applied to dirigibles and zeppelins – both forms of airships. We look back at our interview with him in 2014...
"What made airships so important in the 1920s and 1930s was speed. Airships were the Concorde of their day; the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg cut the travel time between Europe and South America from several weeks to several days," notes Grossman. "Speed is what made the great ocean liners important as well; the incredible speed of ships like Queen Mary and Normandie brought Europe and America closer."
To get a better understanding of the legacy and possible future of airships in our skies we put a few questions to Grossman. As you’ll see, both the size and impact of the once great machines is quite stunning.
How do the overall travel experiences of airplanes compare to that of airships?
Airplanes provide fast, efficient, and reasonably-priced transportation, while an airship would provide a magical experience, viewing the passing landscape from 600 feet in the air at a leisurely 80 miles per hour.
What are the main reasons for airships falling out of favour?
People often blame the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, but in truth Hindenburg was obsolete before it ever flew. Three months before Hindenburg first took to the air, Pan American Airways’ M-130 China Clipper made the first scheduled flight across the Pacific, and it could also have crossed the Atlantic with ease.
The dramatic improvement of airplane technology during World War II far eclipsed anything possible with an airship. Fixed-wing airliners were simply faster and more efficient - because they required less infrastructure and crew - than airships.
Why do you think that airships should be given a second go?
Airships are the best aircraft for sightseeing, and small, new technology zeppelins are being used for that purpose today in Germany.
A large airship would make a wonderful vehicle for leisure cruises, but the fares would be incredibly high and one major drawback would be the weight of water; how many people would spend tens of thousands of dollars to spend four or five days without taking a shower?
What were the best and worst aspects of travelling across the Atlantic in an airship?
A quick look at the interior of Hindenburg answers the first question; at a time when the only other way to cross the Atlantic required a week of seasickness on a ship, Hindenburg passengers had a motionless ride, enjoying fine meals and wines, and listening to a piano in an elegant lounge, while watching the world pass by a few hundred feet below and crossing the Atlantic in two days.
But all that luxury was negated by the fact that Germany had no helium, and its airships had to operate with highly-flammable and unacceptably-dangerous hydrogen gas.
Can you tell us any interesting facts or figures about airships?
Did you know that the world's first airline used zeppelins? The German airline DELAG was founded in 1909.
And that the world's first flight attendant worked on an airship? Heinrich Kubis started serving passengers in March, 1912 on the passenger airship Schwaben.
Will airships ever make a comeback as far as commercial air travel is concerned?
It’s unlikely. Modern jet aircraft provide speed and low-cost that no airship could ever equal.
Passenger ships today can no longer compete with airliners for speed, so they found a new role as cruise ships, and if passenger airships have a future, this is the model they will follow.
And until they day comes - if it ever does - airships are still the best aircraft for sightseeing, slowly floating over the countryside as their passengers look out large windows in a comfortable cabin, gazing at the scenery below.
Images from airships.net