Since the 1850s, engineers have been experimenting with powered
lighter-than-air flight, essentially balloons with steering and propulsion.
Like other early aeronautical experiments, the trial-and-error period was
lengthy and hazardous. Dirigibles (with internal support structures) and
blimps (powered balloons) were filled with lifting gases like hydrogen
or helium, intended for many uses, from military and research to long-
distance passenger service.
The growth of the airship suffered numerous setbacks, including the
famous Hindenburg disaster in 1937, and never developed into a major
mode of travel. Despite the challenges, more than 150 years later, a
number of airships are still in use and development around the world
as cargo carriers, military platforms, promotional vehicles, and more.
In 1905, pioneering balloonist Thomas Scott Baldwin's latest airship returns from a flight over the City of Portland, Oregon, during the Lewis and Clark Centennial
Exposition. (Library of Congress)
An airship flies above the White House in Washington, D.C., in 1906. (George Buck, Library of Congress)
The Baldwin airship at Hammondsport, New York, in 1907. Thomas Scott Baldwin, second from left, was a U.S. Army major during World War I. He became the first
American to descend from a balloon by parachute. (Library of Congress)
French military dirigible "Republique" leaving Moisson for Chalais-Mendon, in 1907. (Library of Congress)
Zeppelin airship seen from water, August 4, 1908. (Library of Congress)
A Clement-Bayard dirigible in shed, France, ca 1908. The lobes on the tail, meant for stability, were removed form later models, as they were found to slow the craft
in the air. (Library of Congress)
“La Ville de Paris”, a very early dirigible balloon, built by Henri Deutsch, a French petroleum businessman, 1906.
Wellman airship "America" viewed from the RMS TRENT, shown dragging her anchor, ca 1910. (Library of Congress)
September, 1912: Military personnel prepare to take off in an army airship. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
LZ 18 (Navy designation L 2) was the second Zeppelin airship to be bought by the Imperial German Navy. It caught fire and crashed with the loss of all aboard on 18
October 1913 before entering service.
The German airship LZ 18 (German Navy designation L2) was
destroyed by an explosion caused by escaped hydrogen being
sucked into an engine compartment during a test flight on 17
October 1913;, killing the entire crew, known as the Johannisthal
Air Disaster. The loss of the L 2 occurred six weeks after the loss
of the L 1 with most of its crew. The two disasters deprived the
Navy of most of its experienced personnel and led to the
suspension of the planned expansion program.
World War One , Zeppelin Raids. On the morning of January 19th 1915 two German Zeppelin airships, the L3 and L4 took off from Fuhlsbttel in Germany. Both
airships carried 30 hours of fuel, 8 bombs and 25 incendiary devices. They had been given permission by the Emperor Wilhelm II to attack military and industrial
buildings. The Emperor had forbidden an attack on London due to concern for the Royal family to whom he was related.
The two German Zeppelin airships crossed the Norfolk coastline at around 8.30pm. Having crossed the coast the L3 turned north and the L4 south. The incendiary
bombs were dropped to enable the pilots to navigate to their chosen locations Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn where they dropped their bombs.
A total of nine people were killed and some buildings were damaged. But the effect of the raid on a population who were used to battles being fought by soldiers on
the battlefield was immense.
Further raids were carried out on coastal towns and London during 1915 and 1916. The silent airships arrived without warning and with no purpose built shelters
people hid in cellars or under tables. There were a total of 52 Zeppelin raids on Britain claiming the lives of more than 500 people.
Although artillery guns were used against the airships they had little effect. In May 1916 fighter planes armed with incendiary bullets were used to attack the
Zeppelins. The incendiary bullets pierced the Zeppelins and ignited the hydrogen gas they were filled with. Once alight the airships fell to the ground. It was the
beginning of the end of the raids.
First World War. German Zeppelin LZ 77, which raided eastern England in 1915 and was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Revigny in France on 21 February 1916.
A German zeppelin caught in the searchlights during a bombing raid in 1916. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1917: A British airship attached to its mooring. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
WW I.1914-1918 British Airship No. 37 escorting a convoy.
February 1919: The frame of a zeppelin under construction at Short Brothers Works in Belfast. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
March 1919: The British airship R33 in its hangar as it prepares for its first ever flight at an aerodrome in Barlow, Yorkshire. Picture: R. Humphrey/Topical Press
Boats, airplane, and airship, ca. 1922. Possibly the U.S. Navy's SCDA O-1. (Library of Congress)
British M.P.s walk onto an airship gangplank, in Cardington, England, in the 1925. (Library of Congress)
The U.S. Navy's dirigible Los Angeles, upended after a
turbulent wind from the Atlantic flipped the 700-foot
airship on its nose at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1926.
The ship slowly righted itself and there were no
serious injuries to the crew of 25. (AP Photo)
Luftskipet (airship) "Norge" over Ekeberg, Norway, on April 14, 1926. (National Library of Norway)
A pair of Gloster Grebe fighter planes, tethered to the underside of the British Royal Navy airship R33, in October of 1926.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
February 1923: A helium-filled US Navy dirigible, the “Los Angeles,” formerly the ZR3, was built by the Germans as part of their war reparations. Picture: Topical
Press Agency/Getty Images
1929: The British airship R-100 flies through a thick layer of clouds. She was scrapped after the crash of her sister ship, the R-101, in 1930. Picture: General
Photographic Agency/Getty Images
October 1929: The airship R101 flying over the British town of Bedford on its first flight. Picture: Central Press/Getty Images
Passengers surveying the scene from the verandah deck of the British R100 Airship, built to compete with the great ocean liners of the day. 1930 Picture: A R
R101 wreckage. After some trial flights, and subsequent modifications to increase lifting capacity which included lengthening the airship by 46 ft (14 m), it crashed
on 5 October 1930 in France during its maiden overseas voyage, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. Among the passengers were Lord Thomson, the Air Minister
who had initiated the programme, and other senior officials, including the airship's designers. The crash of R101 effectively ended British airship development, and
was one of the worst airship accidents of the 1930s.
The Graf Zeppelin
September 1928: The Graf Zeppelin (D-LZ
127, i.e. Deutsches Luftschiff Zeppelin #127)
under construction. Picture: Fox
German military officer Count Ferdinand Zeppelin, with the Countess Zeppelin.
The Graf Zeppelin flies low over Tokyo before proceeding to Kasumigaura Airport on its around-the-world flight, on August 19, 1929.(AP Photo)
The giant German dirigible Graf Zeppelin, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 29, 1929. (AP Photo)
April 1930: An aerial view of the Graf Zeppelin flying over Wembley Stadium in London during the 1930 FA Cup Final. Picture: Central Press/Getty Images
A 1931 stereograph reads,
“the Graf Zeppelin’s
rendezvous with the
eternal desert and the
more than 4000-year-old
pyramids of Gizeh,
Egypt.” Picture: Keystone
View Company/Library of
The Graf Zeppelin over Jerusalem, 1931. Picture: American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Dept./Library of Congress
Graf Zeppelin landing on water during polar flight. In July, 1931, Graf Zeppelin carried a team of scientists from Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and
Sweden on an exploration of the Arctic, making meteorological observations, measuring variations in the earth’s magnetic field in the latitudes near the North Pole,
and making a photographic survey of unmapped regions using a panoramic camera that automatically took several pictures per minute. The size, payload, and
stability of the zeppelin allowed heavy scientific instruments to be carried and used with an accuracy that would not have been possible with the airplanes of the
The mechanic of the rear engine gondola changes shift climbing inside the mantle of the airship, as the Graf Zeppelin sails over the Atlantic Ocean in a seven-day
journey from Europe to South America, in August of 1933. (AP Photo/Alfred Eisenstaedt)
Graf Zeppelin, LZ127. Landing in Friedrichshafen 22.08.1935.
The "Graf Zeppelin" LZ127 landing in Friedrichshafen 22.08.1935. Despite the damned symbol, this shot shows the monstrous size of the airship.
The USS Akron and USS Macon
Aerial view of the USS Akron over Washington, D.C., in 1931, with the long north diagonal of New Jersey Avenue bisected by the balloon and Massachusetts Avenue
seen just beneath the ship. (Library of Congress)
The USS Akron launches a Consolidated N2Y-1 training plane during flight tests near Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 4, 1932. (U.S. Navy)
The USS Macon sails over lower Manhattan, on October 9, 1933. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)
1933 The airship USS Macon, moored at Hangar One at Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View, California. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)
USS Macon, October 1933. Inagural Arrival at Moffett Field
“The Eyes of the fleet”. 1933 USS Macon over (what would be) Golden Gate Bridge.
USS Macon upon inagural arrival to Sunnyvale Airbase (August 15, 1933)
USS Macon inside the Goodyear/Zeppelin Airship Dock at Akron, Ohio. The ship was brand new at the time. (1933)
A 240m dirigible US Navy air cruiser, the USS Akron. The USS Akron was in its third year of flight when a violent storm sent it crashing tail-first into the Atlantic
Ocean shortly after midnight on April 4, 1933, off the New Jersey coast. The disaster claimed 73 lives, more than twice as many as the crash of the Hindenburg, four
years later. Picture: National Naval Aviation Museum
The wreckage of the naval dirigible USS Akron is brought to the surface of the ocean off the coast of New Jersey, on April 23, 1933. The Akron went down in a violent
storm off the New Jersey coast. The disaster claimed 73 lives, more than twice as many as the crash of the Hindenburg. The USS Akron, a 785-foot dirigible, was in
its third year of flight when a violent storm sent it crashing tail-first into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after midnight on April 4, 1933. (AP Photo)
The steel skeleton of "LZ 129", the new German airship, under construction in Friedrichshafen. The airship would later be named after the late Field Marshal Paul
von Hindenburg, former President of Germany. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive)
Finishing touches are applied to the A/S Hindenburg in the huge German construction hangar at Friedrichshafen. Workmen, dwarfed in comparison with the ship's
huge tail surfaces, are chemically treating the fabric covering the huge hull.(San Diego Air & Space Museum)
LZ 129 Hindenburg before the
first flight in March 4,1936.
The German zeppelin Hindenburg flies over Manhattan on May 6, 1937. A few hours later, the ship burst into flames in an attempt to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, (AP
The Hindenburg dumps water to ensure a smoother landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 9, 1936. The airship made 17 round trips across the Atlantic Ocean in
1936, transporting 2,600 passengers in comfort at speeds up to 135 km/h (85 mph). The Zeppelin Company began constructing the Hindenburg in 1931, several years
before Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor. For the 14 months it operated, the airship flew under the newly-changed German national flag, the swastika
flag of the Nazi Party. (AP Photo)
The Hindenburg flies over the Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts in 1936. Another small plane can also be seen at top right.(Courtesy of the Boston Public
Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
A U.S. Coast Guard plane escorts the Hindenburg to a landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on its inaugural flight between Freidrichshafen and Lakehurst in 1936. (US
The Hindenburg trundles into the U.S. Navy hangar, its nose hooked to the mobile mooring tower, at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 9, 1936. The rigid airship had
just set a record for its first north Atlantic crossing, the first leg of ten scheduled round trips between Germany and America. (AP Photo)
The German-built zeppelin Hindenburg is shown from behind, with the Swastika symbol on its tail wing, as the dirigible is partially enclosed by its hangar at the U.S.
Navy Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, May 9, 1936. (AP Photo)
The German dirigible Hindenburg, just before it crashed before landing at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.(AP Photo)
At approximately 7:25 p.m. local time, the German zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames as it nosed toward the mooring post at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst,
New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The airship was still some 200 feet above the ground.(AP Photo/Murray Becker)
The Hindenburg quickly went up in flames -- less than a minute passed between the first signs of trouble and complete disaster. This image captures a moment
between the second and third explosions before the airship hit the ground. (AP Photo)
The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The
disaster, which killed 36 people after a 60-hour transatlantic flight from Germany, ended regular passenger service by the lighter-than-air airships. (AP Photo/Murray
1937. The German passenger ship Hindenburg catches fire and explodes as it approaches its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. The
disaster draws nationwide publicity because newsreel cameras, radio journalists and newspaper reporters are there to cover the first transatlantic flight of the year.
Already plagued by bad publicity around a number of near-accidents, the Hindenburg disaster marks the beginning of the end for the zeppelins.
Airships were the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight, and were most commonly used before the 1940s, but their use decreased over time as their
capabilities were surpassed by those of aeroplanes. Their decline was accelerated by a series of high-profile accidents, including the 1930 crash and burning of
British R101 in France, the 1933 storm-related crash of the USS Akron and the 1937 burning of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. From the 1960s, helium airships
have been used in applications where the ability to hover in one place for an extended period outweighs the need for speed and manoeuvrability such as
advertising, tourism, camera platforms, geological surveys, and aerial observation.
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