Aircraft and Airships in 1914

Aircraft and Airships in 1914

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I didn't have more than about three weeks' training near Albacete. That was in early November 1936, when we were told that we were going to Madrid. We were taken down in trucks to Albacete, put on trains there and went up to the front with the French Battalion. We didn't see really anything of Madrid right away, we arrived there during the night. We actually went into action on 6 or 7 November 1936. By the time we got out it was light and we marched through the streets. People gathered around and at first thought we were Russians, but they soon realized that we were not. There was a tremendous reception because the word went round. While we were getting out of the trains and forming up, the crowd gathered and cheered us. We didn't realize immediately how serious the military situation was and how close to Madrid the fascists had got. We were taken into University City, that was the first encounter.

The Tondren Raid: History's First Aircraft Carrier Air Raid

At the time, the unlikely raid was hailed as a great success and received coverage in the New York Times.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The Royal Navy pushed its technology as far as it could go in the Tondern raid, dispatching its fighters to the limit of their range from a ship they were not capable of landing back upon to attack a large target with tiny bombs.

Nearly a century ago during World War I, the Royal Navy launched the first air strike from an aircraft carrier ever, targeting a zeppelin base in Tondern. After dropping a cumulative bomb load that barely exceeded the weight of a single five-hundred-pound bomb carried by a typical World War II fighter, the naval strike planes all proceeded to crash in the sea or were forced to land on neutral territory.

This attack actually constituted an enormous success—and remains a landmark in the history of naval aviation.

To be clear, ship-launched seaplanes preceded their carrier-launched counterparts in battle. The Japanese took the initiative by deploying ship-launched Farman seaplanes against German ships off of Qingdao in 1914. The Royal Navy soon followed in December with a ship-launched seaplane raid on a German airbase near Cuxhaven. However, though highly useful for spying upon enemy ship movements and hunting submarines, seaplanes could not be launched or recovered very quickly—they need to be lifted into the water by crane—and their performance was compromised by their underslung pontoons.

The American aviation pioneer Eugene Ely had proved it was possible to fly an airplane onto a ship when he took off and landed on a platform built atop the battleship USS Pennsylvania while it sat at dock. This was only achieved with great difficulty—and the Pennsylvania had not even been moving. During World War I, navies did devise launch platforms that could dispatch conventional fighters from atop the turrets of heavy cruisers or battleships. But each ship could only carry a few aircraft, and these would have to ditch at sea after being launched.

The Royal Navy was enthusiastic about sea-launched aircraft, in part because it had a zeppelin problem. The giant German airships, typically measuring six hundred feet long—two football fields back to back—were widely employed in spying upon Royal Navy ships, and occasionally trying to bomb them. Seaplanes sent to chase them down often couldn’t fly high enough to shoot them down. In 1916, in an effort to stamp out the problem at its source, the Royal Navy sailed up off the coast of Germany and deployed eleven seaplanes to scout out and destroy one of the zeppelin bases. They discovered its exact location near Tondern, which lies in present-day Denmark, but failed to inflict much damage upon it.

As it happened, the Royal Navy was nearly done building the last of its twenty-thousand-ton Courageous-class battlecruisers—a ship type it no longer really wanted. These were meant to be “large light cruisers”: ships as fast as light cruisers but with the guns of a battleship. The Courageous class took the concept to the extreme by mounting two enormous eighteen-inch guns so powerful that simply firing them blew rivets out the ship’s hull. High speed was achieved by sacrificing armor protection under the mantra that “speed was armor.”

Battlecruisers were supposed to chase down smaller ships that didn’t have the firepower to fight back. However, give a navy a two-hundred-meter-long ship with large guns and it will send them fight other vessels the same size. In the Battle of Jutland, British battle cruisers charged the German High Seas Fleet—and lost three of their number to titanic ammunition explosion in the gun turrets. No longer enamored with the lightly armored capital ships, British naval planners decided to convert the last of the new Courageous-class vessels into an aircraft carrier. This was accomplished by replacing the front turret with a small hangar that had a 160-foot flight deck on top.

The Furious’s Sopwith Pup fighters could take off from this short flight deck—but not land on it. To address this shortcoming, in the winter of 1917–18 the Furious’s rear gun turret was replaced with a second three-hundred-foot flight deck. The Royal Navy had devised a method in which a Pup flying into a stiff headwind could actually almost match velocity with the Furious as it sailed at a maximum speed! (Yes, World War I aircraft were very slow.) The Pup would approach parallel to the carrier then slide sideways towards the deck, where waiting flight crew would leap up and hook arresting cables to leather straps under the airplane, bringing it down to the deck.

If this sounds extremely dangerous and unreliable . . . it was. Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning was the first pilot to pull off a landing on the deck of the Furious—indeed, the first landing ever on a moving ship. However, he died when his Pup flipped off the deck while attempting his third landing. Part of the problem was that tall superstructure in the middle of the Furious’s deck created intolerable turbulence for approaching aircraft. Of the subsequent eleven attempted landings, only three succeeded.

The Royal Navy concluded it had a good platform for launching fighter planes—but not recovering them. The new plan was for the pilots to ditch their aircraft at sea, where escorting destroyers could recover both the plane and the pilot. If everything worked perfectly—and frequently it didn’t—the naval fighter could be recovered intact and its fabric skin replaced. Unlike today’s multimillion-dollar jets, World War I aircraft were relatively cheap to manufacture and considered expendable. The use of “disposable” fighters even continued into World War II in the form of CAM ships that could rocket Hurricane fighters up into the sky to protect Atlantic convoys from air attack—without any expectation of finding a safe place to land.

By 1918, the Royal Navy had a new plane specially designed for the Furious: the 2F.1 Ship’s Camel. These were a variant of the highly maneuverable Sopwith Camel, the iconic British fighter of World War I. To put things in perspective, the Camel had performance specs comparable to your contemporary automobile, with a top speed of 113 miles per hour and a maximum range of three hundred miles.

The navalized 2F.1 had shorter wings, a folding tail for easier storage on the deck, and hooks so that ship-mounted cranes could easily fish them out of the water after ditching. Even the landing gear was designed to be jettisoned for safer water landings. The 2F.1 had a new Bentley BR1 engine and swapped one of the two synchronized Vickers machine guns shooting through the propeller for an overwing Lewis gun, thought to be more convenient for attacking zeppelins from below. In addition, it could carry eighty to one hundred pounds of bombs—roughly equivalent in weight to a single heavy artillery shell.

The Furious also carried Sopwith 1½ Strutter attack planes, but these were reserved mostly for observation missions, which were in high demand.

The Furious now carried capable carrier-based fighters and could muster seven experienced pilots trained to operate them—but how was it to use them? As the zeppelin base in Tondern was the only one within range, it seemed an appropriate target.

However, the first attempted raid late in June 1918 failed, as heavy winds made launch of the aircraft impossible. The Furious and its escorts were forced to abort mission so as not to risk discovery.

The Furious set off again three weeks later on July 17, escorted by a squadron each of cruisers and battleships, as well as an escort screen of destroyers. The plan of Operation F7 was to sail the force up to twelve miles off the German coast. From there, the Camels would take off in two waves and use the Danish Lyngvig Lighthouse as a navigational aid as they flew along the coast toward the zeppelin storage hangars in Tondern, which they would attack with two fifty-pound Cooper bombs. However, should they encounter any airborne zeppelins on the mission, they were to prioritize attacking those, even if it meant ditching the bombs and giving up the fuel necessary to make it back home. The British military was willing to go to great expense to destroy the high-flying airships!

Again the Furious encountered heavy winds when it arrived at the launch point on July 18, but they quieted down by early morning on July 19. At 3 a.m. the carrier began launching the 2F.1 fighters, a process that took twenty minutes. Immediately, the Camel of Captain T. K. Thyne developed engine problems. He ditched his plane and was rescued, but his airplane was accidentally run over by the destroyer sent to pick it up!

It took the first wave of three Camels an hour and a half of flying time to traverse the eighty miles to Tondern and locate the airbase. Of the base’s three hangars, two smaller ones, named “Toni” and “Tobias,” could each accommodate a single zeppelin, but both were empty that morning. However, there were two zeppelins—L54 and L60—inside the massive 740-by-130-foot hanger named “Toska.”

Capt. W. F. Dickson led the attack, though his bombs reportedly missed. His wingmen were more successful—the little bombs pierced the roof the Toska mega-hangar and set the zeppelin’s superstructure ablaze.


The first role fulfilled by aircraft in the early days of the war was that of reconnaissance. Aeroplanes would fly above the battlefield and determine the enemy’s movements and position. These reconnaissance flights shaped several of the critical early battles of the First World War.

A German plane at the Battle of Tannenberg spotted Russian troops massing for a counter-attack and reported the movements back to General Hindenberg. Hindenberg believed that the reconnaissance report won him the battle, commenting:

Reconnaissance also undermined German plans of attack. At the First Battle of the Marne, Allied reconnaissance aircraft spotted a gap in the German lines, which they were then able to exploit, splitting the German force and driving them back.

Handley-Page two-engined bomber in flight over oil tanks. The Handley Page bomber’s max speed topped out at about 97 miles per hour. Credit: U.S. Air Force / Commons.

German airships in the Great War 1914-18

In August 1914, seven airships were available to the German Army four were deployed in the West and three in the East. Three of those assigned in the West attempted to bomb French military targets in daylight they were all destroyed and it was immediately obvious that airships could not carry out any role during daylight.

The three airships in the East completed their first mission on 28 August 1914 – a bombing raid against the railway station at Mlawa. However, enemy action forced one down and the crew was taken prisoner. The Army airships were also in action in the south during the Romanian campaign of autumn 1916, when they conducted several strategic raids against Bucharest and the Ploesti area.

On the night of 31 January-1 February 1916, LZ 55 (LZ 85) raided the harbour at Salonika with 6,000kg of bombs, and the combat log demonstrates the surprise that could be affected with an attack from the air. It also gives an idea of the endurance that was required to conduct an operation of this nature on a sortie that lasted 18 hours.

The crew sighted Salonika, but south of the town, still over the sea, was a dense bank of clouds. The ship stopped south of Salonika in order to observe the harbour and the ships at the quays, and some darkened steamers and ships with lights set were discovered in the bay. LZ 85 headed for two probable transport vessels and then to the harbour moles with their ammunition storage facilities. Some 60kg bombs were aimed at the ships and there was one hit close to the starboard side of one large vessel. It was impossible to say if any of the unlit ships were damaged in the attack. Most of the GP [general purpose] bombs were released over the harbour and railway installations. Two of them detonated at the head of a mole and a further six in the inner harbour, and others hit the stores, causing huge explosions and possibly setting ammunition ablaze.

Zeppelin 60kg bomb. Richard Reynolds, IWM 2015.

The last bomb was responsible for a fast-spreading fire. Altogether fourteen small bombs were dropped on military warehouses north-west of the town. Only a very few guns managed to engage the airship because its appearance came as a surprise to the forces based at Salonika. After that the ship left the Salonika area and returned the same way it had come…

On a return visit later that year, however, LZ 55 (LZ 85) was downed by ground fire, and the Army began to withdraw the craft from the theatre. After that, with the last one LZ 71 (LZ 101), leaving in September 1917. Some sorties were flown against the French towns of Nancy and Poperinghe in April 1915, but a change in the nature of the air war came in May when the first of the new improved ships, LZ 38, reached operational status. Following a change in German government policy, and in line with the strategic vision of Peter Strasser, the head of naval airships, the Army vessels joined their maritime counterparts in a strategic campaign. This operation and others like it carried out in 1915 were the first examples of strategic bombing in the 20 th century. However, the Army had not completely abandoned the idea of using airships in a tactical role, as shown for the fighting for Verdun. Four ships were sent to support the ground attack on 21 February 1916, although only two craft survived.

Airships of the Reichskriegsmarine – naval airships

It had been envisaged that the role of the North Sea coastal bases and their complement of airships would centre on reconnaissance, and indeed throughout the course of the Great War some 220 such missions were carried out. However, given the refusal of the High Seas Fleet to involve itself with fleet actions against the British Grand Fleet (apart from minor engagements such as Dogger Bank and the large-scale fleet engagement at Jutland in 1916), these missions were not always of primary tactical or strategic importance, despite the usefulness of the data gathered. The improved vessels that came into service in 1915, the ‘M2’ and ‘P’ types, did, however, allow a different strategy to be contemplated: the strategic bombing of Britain.

‘P’ Class Zeppelin.

The Strategic Campaign

The night of 19-20 January 1915 ushered in a feature of 20 th century warfare that was to become all too familiar: strategic air attack. The distinction between tactical and strategic warfare is sometimes indistinct – essentially it lies in the purpose of the attack. Tactical attacks are made with the intention of defeating a localized area, whereas strategic attacks aim to defeat states using a detailed plan, which typically attempts to defeat the enemy through political, military, and social means, and the denial of food, raw materials and supplies to industry. Those advocating of waging strategic warfare thus eschew Clausewitz’s maxim that advocates the necessity of defeating an enemy’s armed forces before victory can be achieved. This philosophy was grounded in 18 th century experience – prior to the introduction of aerial warfare, an enemy’s armed forces usually stood in the way of waging war on infrastructure and population. By 1914, enemy forces could, for the first time, be bypassed without the need to defeat them or fix them in position, and a state’s civil population and infrastructure could be directly attacked. Another line of engagement or ‘front’ – the ‘Home Front’ as it later became known – had been introduced to warfare.

The first strategic air offence in history began somewhat inauspiciously on the night of 19-20 January 1915: two naval airships, LZ 24 (L 3) and LZ 27 (L 4), bypassed the battlefields of northern France, and crossed into Britain over Norfolk. They proceeded to drop bombs on areas that were lit up, presuming, correctly that they represented centres of population. L 3 hit Great Yarmouth and L 4 a number of East Anglian villages. Their tally for the night was four dead and 16 injured.

On the morning of January 19th 1915 two German Zeppelin airships, the L3 and L4 took off from Fuhlsbüttel in Germany. Both airships carried 30 hours of fuel, 8 bombs and 25 incendiary devices.

Further attacks over the following months were mainly, though not exclusively, aimed against targets in southern England, particularly London. The London raid occurred on the night of 31 May-1 June, with seven people being killed and only 30 injured. These attacks, and similar ones against France, such as that on 31 January 1916, when LZ 47 (LZ 77) attacked Paris with 2,000kg of ordnance, were against largely undefended targets. Having given notice of their intentions, though, this state of affairs could not be expected to continue, and the short period of darkness during summer time meant that the airship’s greatest asset, its invisibility, could be compromised. Accordingly, operations were largely suspended during the summer of 1915, with the plan being to resume them, with greater weight and effectiveness given the improved machines in the pipeline, during the autumn of that year.


That the British would take retaliatory measures became evident in April 1915 when Captain Lanoe G. Hawker, of the Royal Flying Corps based at Abeele in Belgium, flying a B.E.2c armed with a few bombs and hand grenades, attacked and destroyed the airship shed at Gontrode, within which, and also destroyed, was LZ38 (LZ38). It was an audacious attack, and highlighted just how vulnerable the airships were when on the ground.

That they might be as vulnerable, given certain conditions, whilst airborne was graphically demonstrated on 6-7 June 1915, when Lt. R.A.J. Warneford Vc, of the RNAS was flying toward Ostend on his first ever night flight. His mission, emulating the earlier effort against Gontrode, was to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Evere. Whilst en-route he spotted LZ37 (LZ37) in the clouds. Warneford maneuvered his plane over the vessel and released his bombs, one or more of which hit something solid. In any event there was a great explosion which ignited the gas, and the L37 (L37) fell earthwards engulfed in flames. This was the first time an airship had been destroyed by an aircraft whilst in flight.

R.A.J. Warneford, V.C. standing in front of a Maurice Farman Shorthorn.

Target London

Strategic attacks in greater strength were resumed in September 1915, and below are extracts from the combat reports of LZ 44 (LZ 74), which raided London on the night of 7-8 September 1915, during the raid more than 4,800kg of bombs hit London, Middlesborough and Norwich, making it the heaviest raid directed against Britain during the First World War.

Zeppelin Raid plaque, 61 Farringdon Road, London, England.

‘Departure 19.27 in the evening… LZ 74 crossed the British coast north of the Thames near Foulness Island. Only a few lights were visible on the ground and only a pale glow in the direction of the City of London when approaching at an altitude of about 3,200m. All the suburbs over which the airship passed were completely blacked out. Following the direction of the wind, and bearing in mind the known positions of British defences, the order was to attack London from the north when LZ 74 reached Brentwood-Woolford. Meanwhile the first searchlights were noticed…’

The account relates how, later, the commander of another airship on the sortie, SL II, mentioned that when the ship reached London, some ten minutes before LZ 74, only a few searchlights were in action. The staggered arrival of the aircraft had allowed the defences to mobilize. The log of LZ 24 (L 3), which was also on the raid, confirms this:

‘Navigation from Kings Lynn to London was straightforward because the landscape was completely dark and most of the cities were still lit up. London was still very brightly illuminated… Orientation over the entire capital was very easy because Regent’s Park was located precisely and the city centre was lit up as if in peace-time… the crew began dropping bombs near High Holborn at an altitude of about 2,500m’.

Zeppelin Thermite Incendiary Bomb.

Despite being camouflaged the railway stations could be identified by the tracks leading to them, which were extremely difficult to conceal. One of these, identified as ‘Leyton railway station’, formed the first target, though it was only bombed to reduce the airship’s flying weight before moving onto the docks, the ‘main target’. There, it was estimated, bombs fell on the Surrey Commercial and, possibly, the West India Docks, as well as Bethnal Green Station. The apparent damage done and the response provoked were also recorded:

Large fires were visible from the sky. Between 12.54 and 01.50 the airship was engaged by several batteries, but without any success. One of the many incendiary shells, recognizable by their white smoke trails, passed by LZ 74 within a few metres before exploding about 400m above the ship. Both gunners, standing on top of the hull of the Zeppelin, took cover because some of the shells were so close.

Having dropped its bomb-load LZ 74 then headed back, leaving England ‘near the River Crouch’ and utilizing cloud cover to shield it from ground fire. The report admits that ‘there was no possibility of the commander and his men determining the actual position of the ship’. Which is evident of the somewhat primitive state of aerial navigation at that time. Nevertheless, the crew got their bearings after crossing the Channel and ‘landed at Namur at about 10.10’, with the only damage being ‘two hits’ on the structure and one engine which failed through ‘mechanical defect’.

The year 1916 saw a greater effort to ‘Force England to her knees’ via war from the air. This was especially so when the first of the ‘R’ class airships, colloquially known to the British as ‘Super Zeppelin’, took to the skies with the commissioning of LZ 62 (L 30) and her induction into active service at the end of May. Sixteen of these vessels were to be completed before the end of the war, and they were to form an important part of the strategic offensive, though with decreasing chance of success as the British began to counter the attacks.

The development of aeroplanes technologically advanced enough to reach the altitude at which airships operated was not in itself enough to render the Zeppelins vulnerable the aeroplanes also had to be equipped with ordnance that could exploit the flammable properties of the hydrogen gas. Each drum or belt of machine-gun ammunition carried a combination of ordnance: explosive rounds were combined with incendiary bullets. The explosive bullets would create holes in the hull and gas shells, whilst the incendiary rounds would ignite the escaping gas. This was successful and was graphically demonstrated by the spectacular destruction of SL 11, which was bad enough, but worse was to follow when ‘Super Zeppelins’ LZ 72 (L 31), LZ 74 (L 32) and LZ 78 (L 34) were destroyed by similar methods through September-November 1916.

Incendiary bullets were invented by New Zealander John Pomeroy. Richard Reynolds IWM London 2015. Incendiary Bullets. Richard Reynolds IWM London 2015.

After LZ 76 (L 33) was lost to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire in September, the German high command realized that airships might not be capable of functioning in their allotted roles without improvement in performance. Indeed, many years later in 1934, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg revealed that von Zeppelin himself had confided to him in 1916 that, in his opinion, the airship was obsolescent and the future belonged to aeroplanes.

At the close of 1916 then, six airships had been lost in raids over Britain due to enemy action, and the Army was separately arriving at the same conclusion as von Zeppelin. Despite this, raids continued throughout the winter of 1916-17, and Strasser remained convinced that it was a worthwhile endeavour. He also attempted to find ways of improving the viability of the airships for waging his campaign.

The wreckage of LZ 76 (L 33).

The only feasible improvement that could be made to airships in order for them to avoid destruction by fighter aeroplanes was to increase their operational altitude. As Strasser put it, ‘High altitude is the best defence against aeroplanes, and a greatly increased attack altitude is so necessary for further airship operations against England that all resulting disadvantages, including a reduction in speed, must be accepted’.

The reduction in speed came about because altitude in a given size of airship can only be traded off against weight, and it was decided to remove one engine from both LZ 80 (L 39), thus immediately saving some 1,750kg. In early February these vessels attained altitudes of over 5,000m. The first of the type to be manufactured, rather than extemporized, was LZ 91 (L 42), which was flight-tested on 28 February, achieving an altitude of some 6,000m. Known, for obvious reasons as ‘Height Climbers’ by the British, and designated as ‘S’ type by their opponents, these vessels formed the strategic striking force envisaged by Strasser until the last year of the war the ‘R’ type were retrospectively modified to give them similar attributes.

Despite the fact that the ‘Height Climbers’ could operate outside the range of aircraft and AAA fire, they were not a great success, simply because of the hitherto unknown difficulties of operating at such altitudes. Neither humans nor machinery function properly in such cold, low-oxygen, environments, and the problems of predicting the weather so far above ground, together with the increased fragility of the lighter frameworks, made the high winds found in the sub-stratosphere dangerous. Navigation also became more problematic than before.

The first raid on England using high altitude airships, LZ 79 (L 41), LZ 80 (L 35), LZ 86 (L 39), LZ 88 (L 40) and LZ 91 (L 42), took place on the night of 16-17 March 1917. It was not a great success, and one ship was lost, mainly because of the effects of the weather. After ineffectually dropping six bombs on Kent, L 39 was driven off course by strong winds and then suffered apparent engine failure. The airship drifted over France at reduced altitude and was hit by AAA, which caused it to crash in flames near Compiègne. Despite the fact that the bombs dropped on southern England had caused almost no damage, the airships’ altitude gave them a certain invulnerability that concerned the British, whose defences appeared to have been ‘vertically outflanked’.

British propaganda postcard, entitled -The End of the ‘Baby-Killer-.

Further raids using altitude for protection took place on 23-24 May and 16-17 June, the latter raid caused severe damage as bombs hit (quite by chance), however, LZ 95 (L 48), one of the newer ‘U’ type vessels , got lost after dropping bombs in open countryside and reducing altitude from about 5,500m to 4,000m, an altitude where aeroplanes could operate. A British fighter climbed to within 150m and discharge a drum of anti-airship ammunition into the lower-stern of L 48 and the ship fell burning to the ground, though incredibly, three crewmembers survived.

Despite this loss, the raids continued, with attacks carried out on the night of 21-22 August and 24-25 September by eight and nine airships respectively. Neither of these produced any great results, with most of the bombs falling in open countryside. The intensity of the raids was stepped up with an 11 ship raid on the night of 19-20 October, but this was to end in disaster with the loss of five vessels, LZ 93 (L 44), LZ 85 (L 45). LZ 96 (L 49), LZ 89 (L 50) and LZ 101 (L 55), through the action of the poor weather at extreme altitudes. It seemed that in overcoming their first major technical difficulty, the flammability of hydrogen and the British ability to exploit it, the airships had fallen foul of the second, their inability to function against high winds because of the fragility of their design. This second problem was partially overcome by the introduction of engines that could maintain a decent output at altitude, though even these in LZ 105 (L 58) did not prevent the vessel having to abort a mission to bomb Britain on 12-13 December because of high winds.

London’s Air Defence System Map 1918.

The first strategic raid of 1918 on Britain was on 12-13 March, using five of the latest airships. LZ 99 (L 54), LZ 100 (L53), LZ 106 (L 61), LZ 107 (L 62), and LZ 110 (L 63). The raid was rendered ineffective by the weather – not winds on this occasion, but rather thick cloud that obscured the ground. Another five-ship raid on 12-13 April was notable for the airship gunners hitting an aeroplane chasing their ship LZ 107 (L 62), and forcing it to break off and land. This successful instance of defensive gunfire is believed to have been unique, but an experiment that might have afforded a greater defensive capability had taken place on 26 January. The airship LZ 80 (L 35) took off with an Albatross D.III fighter suspended beneath it, which was successfully dropped from a height of some 1,200m, and flew safely away. The rationale behind this experiment is clear enough, but the project was not explored further.

The airship as a combat weapon was becoming obsolescent, though the tireless advocate of both the weapon and its strategic use, Peter Strasser, continued to deny this, and on 5-6 August himself led a five ship raid to bomb London. Strasser’s ‘flagship’ for this operation was the LZ 112 (L 70), the first ‘X’ type which had reached an altitude of some 7,000m during tests, whilst the other four ships, LZ 100 (L 53), LZ 103 (L 56), LZ 110 (L 63)and LZ 111 (L 65), had 6,000m ceilings. However, the defenders now deployed the two-seater De Havilland DH-4 aeroplane, which had a ceiling greater than 6,000m.

de Havilland DH-4.

In any event and for unknown reasons, three of the airships, L 53, L 65, and L 70, chose to approach the British coast at heights of some 5,000m, where they were intercepted by three of the aeroplanes. The report of one pilot, Maj. E. Cadbury, graphically described what happened: ‘The [explosive bullets were] seen to blow a great hole in the fabric and a fire started which quickly ran along the entire length of the Zeppelin. The Zeppelin raised her bows as if in an effort to escape, then plunged seaward, a blazing mass. The airship was completely consumed in approximately 45 seconds.

The downed airship was L 70, and there were no survivors. Strasser had perished in Imperial Germany’s newest airship on what was to be the last strategic raid of the war. L 70 was not the last airship to fall victim to British fighters, however, on 11 August, while carrying out reconnaissance work over the North Sea, LZ 100 (L 53)was successfully intercepted by a Sopwith Camel launched from a lighter towed behind a destroyer. Despite operating at near maximum altitude (taking the aeroplane an hour to climb anywhere near it), the airship was ignited by gunfire from some 100 metres below, and plunged into the sea.

The airship as a weapon of war had clearly been neutralized, and in any event the defeat of German arms of all kinds was acknowledged within three months by the signing of the armistice. Nevertheless, high altitude strategic bombing had arrived.

The Switch to Bomber Aircraft ↑

In the early hours of 3 September 1916 the first airship shot down over British soil (a Schütte-Lanz, SL.11) crashed in flames in Hertfordshire while attempting to attack London. Within a month the new bullets were responsible for destroying two more intent on bombing the capital, while anti-aircraft guns forced down another. Although the Naval Airship Division retained its faith in airships, only nine raids reached Britain in the last two years of the war. The army, however, abandoned airships and turned to bomber aircraft, which now presented the main threat to London.

The first daylight raid on the capital by Gotha bombers took place on 13 June 1917. It caused 162 deaths and 426 injuries, the most by any single air raid on Britain. Mounting Gotha losses through the summer, however, forced a switch to night bombing in September 1917. Between June 1917 and May 1918 Gotha bombers – joined by the massive R-type Staaken “Giants” (Riesenflugzeug) – attacked London on seventeen occasions and also bombed many south-eastern coastal towns. The last aeroplane raid of the war – aimed at London – occurred on the night of 19/20 May 1918. Zeppelins made one final, futile attack against Britain on the night of 5/6 August.

Lighter Than Air

A senior aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Tom Crouch has written extensively about the Wright brothers and other pioneers of flight. His newest book, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, $35), is a thoroughly researched and engagingly written history of buoyant flight from the balloonists of the 18th century to the military airship crews of World War II. The following excerpt is from a chapter titled “The Fabulous Silvery Fishes: The History of Rigid and Non-Rigid Airships, 1914�.”

They were ships in the sky, and to watch one of the great craft pass majestically overhead was an emotional experience never to be forgotten. That was certainly the case for young John McCormick, an eight-year-old Iowa boy who stood with his grandmother as Graf Zeppelin flew directly over the family farm in the summer of 1929. The great dirigible was so low, he recalled six decades later, that they could see “every crease and contour from nose to fins…so low that we could see, or imagined we could see, people waving at us from the slanted windows of its passenger gondola.” Grandmother and grandson stood entranced. “Slowly, slowly the ship moved over us, beyond us, and at last was gone.”

Four-year-old David Lewis was on a Sunday outing in the family Dodge in 1935, when his mother suddenly exclaimed, “There’s a Zeppelin!” “Its engines,” he recalled, “hummed with a sound that reverberates in my memory seventy years later.” As an adult, Lewis wondered if that misty memory had been only a dream, until he saw a photo of the craft he had seen that day, and it all came flooding back. “The sound…echoing as the dirigible disappeared in the west, reaches out to me across the gulf of time that separates me from the child, yet connects me to a life-altering experience.”

So it was for Anne Chotzinoff Grossman, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, who encountered the Hindenburg in the fall of 1936. The shy first-grader was waiting for the bell that would end recess, when the shadow of the airship passed across the schoolyard. With her older brother Blair and his friends leading the way, she set off in pursuit. “We ran across fields and brooks and over stone walls, trying to keep the airship in sight.” Finally admitting defeat, “we made our way back to school, very late and very dirty, to face angry teachers.” She was ordered to the blackboard to write one hundred times, “I will not chase the Hindenburg”—a pretty tall order for a six-year-old.

Hugo Eckener, who guided the Zeppelin Company and its airships through the vagaries of politics and weather for four decades, understood the emotional experience evoked by the sight of a rigid airship cruising through the sky. “The mass of the mighty airship hull, which seemed matched by its lightness and grace,” he noted, “never failed to make a strong impression on people’s minds. It was…a fabulous silvery fish. Floating quietly in the ocean of air and captivating the eye…. And this fairy-like apparition, which seemed to melt into the silvery-blue background of the sky, when it appeared far away, lighted by the sun, seemed to be coming from another world and to be returned there like a dream.”

The world’s first passenger airline, DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft, or German Airship Transportation Corporation Ltd) was established on November 16, 1909, as an offshoot of the Zeppelin Company. The company provided passenger air service until 1935, when its operations were taken over by the newly-formed Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei.

While many of the early flights were sightseeing tours, the DELAG airship Bodensee began scheduled service between Berlin and southern Germany in 1919. The flight from Berlin to Friedrichshafen took 4-9 hours, compared to 18-24 hours by rail. Bodensee made 103 flights and carried almost 2,500 passengers, 11,000 lbs of mail, and 6,600 lbs of cargo.

DELAG offered the world’s first transatlantic passenger airline service, using LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin to make regular, scheduled flights between Germany and South America beginning in 1931. Graf Zeppelin crossed the South Atlantic 136 times before being retired after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.

DELAG also employed the world’s first flight attendant, Heinrich Kubis.

The Origins of DELAG

DELAG’s goal was to commercialize zeppelin travel by providing passenger air service, and to purchase airships built by the Zeppelin Company at a time when support by the military was still uncertain. DELAG was created under the leadership of Zeppelin Company executive Alfred Colsman, who was was married to the daughter of aluminum manufacturer Carl Berg, who supplied aluminum for Count Zeppelin’s airships.

Alfred Colsman (far left) and Count Zeppelin (center, in white yachting cap)

DELAG Before World War I

Between 1910 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, DELAG zeppelins carried over 34,000 passengers on over 1,500 flights, without a single injury. The majority of the passengers were given free flights to publicize the zeppelin industry (especially members of German royalty, military officers, aristocrats, government officials, and business leaders), but DELAG also carried 10,197 paying passengers before having to cease operations with the beginning of the war.

Passengers aboard a luxurious DELAG zeppelin

DELAG used hangars and landing fields at Frankfurt, Oos (Baden-Baden), Dusseldorf, Lepizig, Postdam, Hamburg, Dresden, Gotha, and elsewhere in Germany (click links for photos), and sold tickets in cooperation with the Hamburg-Amerika steamship line as ticket agent.

DELAG was not able to fulfill its goal of providing regularly scheduled intercity passenger service before 1914, but its pre-war zeppelins introduced thousands of people to air travel.

DELAG After World War I

The revolutionary design of the airship LZ-120 Bodensee, introduced in 1919, finally allowed DELAG to compete with the railways and offer daily passenger service between Friedrichshafen and Berlin. Beginning August 24, 1919, Bodensee flew northbound to Berlin on odd days of the month, and returned south to Friedrichshafen on even days the flights included a stop at Munich until October 4, 1919.

DELAG acquired a second ship from the Zeppelin Company in 1920 LZ-121 Nordstern was intended to provide international passenger service between Friedrichshafen, Berlin, and Stockholm, but had not yet gone into service when DELAG was forced to cease operations by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control estalished under the Treaty of Versailles. DELAG’s two airships were transferred to the Allies as war reparations: LZ-120 Bodensee was given to Italy, and LZ-121 Nordstern was given to France.

DELAG Airships

LZ-7 Deutschland

Deutschland has the distinction of making the first commercial flight of the first commercial aircraft in history, but it was a flight which ended in a crash.

Mahogany paneled passenger cabin of LZ-7

LZ-7 departed Dusseldorf on its seventh flight, on June 28, 1910, with Zeppelin Company director Alfred Colsman and a full complement of 23 passengers, mainly journalists covering the flight, enjoying the view from its carpeted, mahogany-paneled, mother-of-pearl-inlayed passenger cabin.

Before long, due to a combination of engine trouble, weather, and the relative inexperience of the ship’s military pilot, LZ-7 crashed into the Teutoburger Forest and was destroyed. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Passenger cabin of LZ-7 (with thanks to Andreas Horn)

Wreckage of LZ-7 at its crash site in the Teutoburger Forest

LZ-8 Deutschland II

LZ-8 was launched March 30, 1911, intended to replace the wrecked LZ-7.

Unfortunately, LZ-8, also named Deutschland, had a similarly short career. On May 16, 1911, with Hugo Eckener in command of an airship for the first time, LZ-8 had barely left its hangar when it was pulled from its handling crew by a gust of wind and smashed against the roof of the hangar the passengers and crew were able to escape without injury by climbing down a long fire ladder, but the ship was a total loss.

Wreck of LZ-8 Deutschland II

It has often been said that the almost predictable wreck of LZ-8 — the day’s gusty wind conditions made the flight ill-advised from the start — contributed to Hugo Eckener’s intense caution in the future, and his determination never again to sacrifice safety to pressure from passengers, the public, or any other source.

LZ-10 Schwaben

Schwaben was launched June 26, 1911, and entered passenger service the next month, on July 16, 1911. Frequently commanded by Hugo Eckener, LZ-10 made over 200 flights and carried over 4,300 passengers, mostly on local flights from the hangar at Oos (Baden-Baden), but also from Dusseldorf, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, and occasionally from other cities.

Schwaben was destroyed by a fire and hydrogen explosion at Dusseldorf on June 28, 1912.

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

LZ-11 first flew on February 14, 1912, and was named after Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhem II.

The ship made local sightseeing flights, mostly from Frankfurt, but also from Postdam, Oos (Baden-Baden), and a few other cities. LZ-11 made almost 500 flights, carrying almost 10,000 passengers.

LZ-11 Viktoria Luise at Oos (Baden-Baden)

Passenger cabin of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise

Viktoria Luise was transferred to the German Army at the beginning of World War I and used as a training ship for the military.

Relative sizes of LZ-11 Viktoria Luise, LZ-120 Bodensee, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. and LZ-129 Hindenburg

LZ-13 Hansa

Hansa made the first international flight by a DELAG ship, traveling from Hamburg to Copenhagen and back on September 19, 1912. Hansa’s first flight was on July 12, 1912, and it carried over 8,200 people on almost 400 flights, mostly from Hamburg and Postdam, but on occassion from other cities such as Leipzig, Gotha, and Berlin. Hansa was last based in Dresden until the outbreak of World War I, when it too was transferred to the Army as a training ship.

Passenger cabin of LZ-13 Hansa

LZ-17 Sachsen

LZ-17 made its first flight on May 13, 1913. Sachsen was the first ship commanded by Ernst Lehmann, who received his airship training in the ship from Hugo Eckener.

During 1913, Sachsen was used mainly for local sightseeing flights at Oos (Baden-Baden) and Leipzig, with occasional flights from Hamburg, Dresden, and other cities.

In 1914 the ship made most of its flights from Hamburg, with additional flights from Potsdam and Leipzig.

Sachsen proved to be an extraordinarily successful ship for DELAG, and carried 9,836 passengers on 419 flights in civilian service.

Sachsen with the zeppelin hangar at Leipzig

With the outbreak of war in August, 1914, Sachsen was transferred to the Army as a training ship, still under the command of Ernst Lehmann, and the leader of the German Navy’s airship service, Peter Strasser, received his training from Eckener and Lehmann aboard Sachsen. Sachsen was later modified to incorporate bomb racks and machine guns and made numerous bombing attacks on targets in Belgium, France, and England. The ship was dismantled in 1916.

LZ-120 Bodensee

The first civilian zeppelin built after the war, LZ-120 was primarily designed to provide fast air transportation between Friedrichshafen and Berlin. Construction was completed within six months, and the ship, named Bodensee, made its first flight on August 20, 1919.

Wind tunnel testing of design for LZ-120 Bodensee

Bodensee’s highly advanced and aerodynamically-determined teardrop shape (which differed greatly from the thin, pencil-like shape of most previous zeppelins) was a great leap forward in zeppelin design, due primarily to the engineering theories of designer Paul Jaray. With its revolutionary design and four 245 hp Maybach MB.IVa engines, LZ-120 Bodensee could reach a speed of 82 MPH.

LZ-120’s shape provided less drag, increased speed, and greater aerodynamic lift, and became the basic model from which LZ-126 Los Angeles, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, and LZ-129 Hindenburg were adapted.

LZ-120 Bodensee passenger cabin

A relatively short, small ship, Bodensee carried 706,000 cubic feet of hydrogen (later increased to 796,300 during a refit).

Bodensee traveled the 370 miles between Friedrichshafen and Berlin in 4-9 hours, compared to the 18-24 hours it took by rail. With washrooms and a small kitchen for light meals, Bodensee could carry up to 26 passengers in comfort as well as speed. In the three months after the ship’s launch, LZ-120 made 103 flights (almost all of them between Friedrichshafen and Berlin) and carried almost 2,500 passengers, 11,000 lbs of mail, and 6,600 lbs of cargo.

LZ-120 was taken from DELAG by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control and delivered to Italy on July 3, 1921, where it was renamed Esperia.

LZ-121 Nordstern

LZ-121 was built to provide the first international passenger zeppelin service, with plans for scheduled flights between Friedrichshafen, Berlin, and Stockholm. LZ-121 was completed in 1920 and christened Nordstern, but the ship was taken from DELAG by the Military Inter-Allied Commission and delivered to France on June 13, 1921, and renamed Méditerranée.

Timeline of Major Events in Airship History

June 4, 1783 – The Montgolfier brothers successfully demonstrate a hot air balloon flight in Versailles France that carried a sheep, a duck, and a rooster to an estimated height of over 5,000 feet.

September 24, 1852 – Henri Giffard flew the first dirigible (steerable balloon) using a steam injector engine of his invention. The flight took him from Paris to Trappers France.

June 1, 1863 – Dr. Solomon Andrews flew his “Aereon” over Perth Amboy, New Jersey in the United States using what he called gravitation to propel and steer the airship. The airship’s surface angle combined with increasing or decreasing its buoyancy allowed air to pass over the surface and propel the airship in the direction that was desired, somewhat like a sailboat is propelled.

July 2, 1900 – Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin of Germany flies his first rigid airship, the LZ 1, over Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen in Germany.

October 19, 1901 – Alberto Santos Dumont of Brazil won the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize from flying his airship # 6 from Parc Saint Cloud in Paris to the Eiffel tower and back in roughly 30 minutes.

November 16, 1909 – DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft or German Airship Travel Corporation) is founded and becomes the world’s first airline service. The “Deutchland” zeppelin began commercial flights on June 19th, 1910. Prior to the outbreak of World War I DELAG managed to carry 34,028 passengers on 1,588 commercial flights over 172,535 kilometers in 3,176 hours of flight.

August 24, 1914 – As the result of a zeppelin raid during World War I the port city of Antwerp in Belgium became the first city to be bombed from the air.

August 20, 1919 – The LZ 120 Bodensee took its maiden flight and was the first active passenger zeppelin built by the Zeppelin Airship Company following World War I.

May 12, 1926 – The Italian semi-rigid airship “Norge” became the first aircraft to reach the North Pole.

September 18, 1928 – The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin made its first flight.

August 8, 1929 to August 29, 1929 – The Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the Earth with Dr. Hugo Eckener in command.

October 19, 1929 – First flight of the British zeppelin the R101.

December 16, 1929 – First flight of the British rigid airship the R100.

May 18, 1930 – The Graf Zeppelin flew from Europe to Recife Brazil to establish the world’s first trans-Atlantic air passenger service which began regular flights in the following year.

September 23, 1931 – First flight of the United States’ flying aircraft carrier the rigid airship Akron.

April 21, 1933 – First flight of the United States’ flying aircraft carrier the rigid airship Macon.

March 4, 1936 – The Hindenburg Zeppelin takes its first test flight. Originally designed for use with Helium, the Hindenburg could initially sleep 50 passengers, but this was raised to 72 for the 1937 flying season since Hydrogen was being used.

May 6, 1937 – The Hindenburg explodes over its landing field in Lakehurst New Jersey killing 35 of the 97 people on board and one member of the ground crew.

March 1940 – Hermann Goering orders the dismantling of the last remaining zeppelins, the Graf Zeppelins LZ 127 and LZ 130 whose scrap will be used for the German war effort.

December 7, 1941 – The United States is attacked by Japan and thus enters World War II. During the war hundreds of blimps were used successfully for anti-submarine operations. Not a single allied ship was lost that was being watched over by navy blimps.

September 18, 1997 – The Zeppelin Company revives its airship construction operations and flies its first Zeppelin NT (new technology) semi-rigid airship on its first flight.

Atomic Airships

For the first half of the 20th century, atomic-powered airships were the stuff of science fiction, floating across the pages of pulp magazines that envisioned a future when nuclear energy would be harnessed for the good of all mankind. It wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” address at the United Nations, however, that the idea received serious attention. Ike’s UN speech was meant to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy for agriculture, medicine and electricity generation, but the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons also took note. The result would be the first military study for an atomic-powered airship.

Written in 1954 by F.W. Locke Jr., that study investigated the feasibility of using nuclear power in an airborne early-warning (AEW) airship to guard against a Soviet first strike. Locke foresaw a rigid airship powered by twin T56 gas turbine engines specially modified for nuclear propulsion. Capable of 115 mph, the airship would be approximately 25 percent faster than previous dirigibles, enabling it to remain on station even in bad weather. Locke proposed a 2-millioncubic-foot helium capacity for his airship, with a large outer envelope containing a long-range, high-resolution radar array.

Unlike airships, which use helium or hydrogen for lift, airplanes require far more power during takeoff than they do for cruising at altitude. One reason why Locke even considered building an airship is that it’s a more viable platform for nuclear propulsion than an airplane, given its low power requirement. Locke proposed a nuclear power plant that weighed only 40,000 pounds, well within an airship’s lift capacity.

As Locke saw it, the crews of nuclear-powered airships would be much less prone to fatigue because “noise and vibration should be almost entirely absent.” He also postulated that crewmen would have “the entire area forward of the cabin…for exercise.”

Given an atomic airship’s superior comfort and endurance, Locke believed it could easily patrol for 100 hours. While he admitted that airships were at a defensive disadvantage due to their high visibility and slow maneuvering, he stressed that this is less of a problem than it might seem. Fast-moving fighters can be called upon to defend airships, just as they are assigned to protect bombers. And by the 1950s there had already been proposals for airships that could carry fighter aircraft aloft. In fact, two “flying aircraft carriers,” the airships Akron and Macon, had been built in the early 1930s, though both came to grief in bad weather.

Locke’s report, the first serious examination of an atomic-powered airship, recommended further study. But its author suggested that many of the problems associated with such designs were solvable— and he wasn’t alone in that belief.

Aerospace illustrator and author Frank Tinsley had envisioned airships carrying nuclear missiles as early as 1948. In March 1956, he wrote and illustrated an article for Mechanix Illustrated recommending that the U.S. government build an atomic-powered dirigible to serve as Ike’s atoms-for-peace demonstrator.

Just over 1,000 feet long, with a helium capacity of 10 to 12 million cubic feet, Tinsley’s design was almost twice as big as Hindenburg, previously the world’s largest airship. Tinsley envisioned an atomic power plant with twin turbines, driving a huge four-bladed propeller in the stern. To assist with takeoffs and landings, ducted fans mounted on gimbals would move the airship up, down or sidewise. Tinsley also imagined a gallery encircling the engine room, where visitors could safely observe the atomic plant in use.

Rubber pontoons inflated with water could be deployed whenever the airship landed on a smooth lake surface. A helicopter landing pad built on an elevator would lift the chopper clear of the hull for takeoff, or lower it into an internal hangar where passengers could disembark. Tinsley even included an exhibition hall that could be detached and lowered to the ground, leaving the airship free to fly around, advertising the exhibit.

Tinsley’s airship was a fantasy, of course, but its inventor believed it could serve as the perfect ambassador for the peaceful use of atomic energy. “No man-made vehicle has ever presented [as] awe-inspiring a spectacle,” he wrote. Karl Arnstein, the Goodyear engineer who had designed the Navy’s Akron and Macon, called Tinsley’s airship proposal “an intriguing new approach.”

But the Eisenhower administration didn’t go for Tinsley’s idea, opting instead to build the first fission-powered merchant ship. NS Savannah was launched on July 21, 1959, at a cost of $46.9 million, more than half of which was spent on its reactor. High operating costs would eventually spell the ship’s doom, leading to its decommissioning in 1971.

In 1957 Edwin J. Kirschner published his book The Zeppelin in the Atomic Age, which promoted the use of atomic airships as aerial reconnaissance platforms for Eisenhower’s“Open Skies”disarmament proposal. Kirschner also proposed a fleet of nuclear-powered “minute men” airships that would not only identify a Soviet attack, but launch an immediate counteroffensive. Although he claimed Eisenhower’s staff was studying his proposals, nothing came of either idea.

In May 1959 Goodyear, the airship experts, finally stepped up to the plate. Assembling a group of aviation writers for a Washington, D.C., breakfast, Goodyear announced it had the ability to build a nonrigid, nuclear-powered airship by 1963. The company envisioned a 540- foot-long blimp that would hold 4.5 million cubic feet of gas and be capable of 90 mph. It was designed to carry a crew of 24 and operate at 10,000 feet, and its nuclear-powered turboprop engines were supposed to give it “unlimited range.”

The project was seen as feasible in part because of a new rubberized fabric that Goodyear had developed, capable of with standing radiation exposures of up to 100 million roentgens (an exposure of 500 roentgens in five hours is usually lethal to humans). Goodyear had built more than 260 airships, the majority of them nonrigid, and it was already producing the conventionally powered, 1.5-million-cubic-foot ZPG-3W blimp for the Navy’s AEW program. The company even had a nuclear power subsidiary with experience operating an atomic reactor.

Goodyear’s press release noted that given such ships’ inherent buoyancy, “a nuclear-powered airship could be fitted with a reactor with one-twentieth the power needed to sustain a nuclear-powered heavier than-air craft.” But the release also noted that the blimp’s “nuclear reactor would be shut down during takeoff and landing,” a nod to safety concerns.

Goodyear proposed building two types of nuclear-powered airships: one for cargo and one as an early-warning sentinel. Though the proposals were almost certainly fishing expeditions, both designs should be taken seriously. Goodyear had the experience to take on such a project, and the Navy had the money. They could easily have built either blimp.

In 1962 America’s most famous proponent for lighter-than-air (LTA) aviation, Vice Adm. Charles E. Rosendahl, was invited to testify at a House subcommittee hearing on Department of Defense appropriations. Though Rosendahl was actually there to lobby against the Navy’s elimination of his beloved LTA program, he managed to slip an endorsement for nuclear-powered airships into the Congressional Record. Rosendahl cited the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Gordon Dean, saying, “One place where the atomic engine can come into its own is the…dirigible.” He also quoted a nuclear technologist at Northrop Aircraft, Jack E. Van Orden, who said nuclear-powered airships were“practical with today’s technology.” Not only did Rosendahl fail to generate funding for nuclear-powered airships, he also lost the battle to save his LTA program after nearly 50 years in operation. The Navy shut down the program in 1962.

Perhaps the most-publicized proposal for a nuclear-powered airship came from Francis Morse, a former Goodyear engineer who was an assistant professor of aeronautics at the University of Boston. His proposal would dominate the discussion for most of the 1960s, inspiring write-ups in New Scientist, Aviation Week & Space Technology and Time magazine. Morse sought funds to build an atomic airship to promote the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. To that end, he and four undergraduates at BU’s College of Industrial Engineering unveiled a 10-foot scale model of their nuclear-powered dirigible.

According to Morse’s calculations, an airship 980 feet long, 176 feet in diameter and with a gross lift of 760,000 pounds needed a power plant generating only 6,000 hp for propulsion. Such a small power requirement meant the total weight of nuclear reactor, turbines and shielding would amount to no more than 120,000 pounds, a fraction of the airship’s gross lift. That meant Morse’s airship could carry a significantly larger payload than conventionally powered dirigibles, making it economically attractive.

Morse envisioned an airship frame made of high-strength, corrosion-resistant alloys such as titanium and aluminum an outer cover made from durable nylon and gas cells filled with helium. His design called for placing the bridge inside the hull, a first for an airship. An axial corridor connected the bridge in the nose to nuclear-powered engines near the stern.

Morse preferred using a scaled-down version of a Pratt & Whitney 200-megawatt (thermal) cycle nuclear reactor. A pressurized steel sphere 12 feet in diameter would encase the reactor, and protective shielding made from lead and a lightweight laminate would sufficiently reduce radiation levels so that the crew could work safely.

Morse admitted that radiation hazards presented a serious obstacle for the design of any atomic-powered aircraft, especially since a crash could“spread fissionable material with lamentable consequences.” But he believed that crashes were much less of a problem for lighter-than-air craft because an airship’s “intrinsic buoyancy reduced the inertial forces from an impact to a manageable level.”In other words, anything containing 17 helium gas cells was bound to crash softly.

That may seem like thin gruel for those on the ground—not to mention aircrews. But despite perceptions to the contrary, conventionally powered airships had far safer operating records than airplanes. Before the Hindenburg crash, for example, commercial airships carried more than 354,000 passengers on 114,700 flights over 4.4 million miles without a single fatality. Though Hindenburg’s last flight is remembered as the infamous exception, only 35 of the airship’s 97 passengers and crew died in that disaster, far fewer than many people believe. During that same era airplanes were death traps by comparison.

Morse proposed a cargo carrier and also a 400-passenger “flying hotel.” As he described it, “The transoceanic traveler…is confronted today with two choices. Either he must buckle himself [in]to an airline seat…resigned to seven hours of inactivity or he may avail himself of more spacious amenities aboard an ocean liner—and spend…a week at sea.” His third alternative, a nuclear-powered airship, would cut transatlantic travel to 40 hours and provide “luxury on par with the surface liner…all at the cost of a first class steamship ticket.” Of course, transatlantic ship travel was actually in the process of taking a nose dive at the time, though Morse didn’t know it.

The lowermost deck of Morse’s flying hotel contained staterooms, many with private baths. There was also a cocktail lounge, a 200-seat dining saloon, a cinema and a promenade deck “broader than on the Queen Elizabeth.” On the upper deck Morse’s airship boasted a “ballroom beneath the stars” with a transparent ceiling arching over a dance floor. Another interesting feature was an 18-seat shuttle plane, used to ferry passengers to and from the airship while it was en route. When not in use, the shuttle would be stowed in a hangar amidships.

Morse clearly had a flair for promotion. A photo taken sometime before the 1964 World’s Fair shows him standing next to a model of his airship, arms outstretched to indicate its size. Wearing eyeglasses that only an aerospace engineer could love and a suit right out of Mad Men, he looks like he’s stepped out of a Cold War filmstrip promoting “Future World.”

Morse’s atomic-powered airship design is still remembered today as something of an industry baseline. Though he considered his design technically feasible, he admitted, “The greatest problems…are not engineering or economic [but] questions of prejudice and persuasion.” What he was referring to, of course, were the Hindenburg, Macon, Akron and other airship disasters, which still haunted the public 30 years later. As a result, Morse’s proposal never got past the discussion stage despite the considerable media attention it received.

The BU professor was not alone in trying to sell the world on a nuclear airship during the Cold War years. In 1969 a proposal by Erich von Veress, a 69-year-old Austrian engineer, generated international attention. Veress called his airship the ALV-1, for Atom Luftschiff Veress, and it was even bigger than Morse’s and Tinsley’s behemoths—1,062 feet long with a helium gas volume of 14.4 million cubic feet. It had a projected gross lift of 1 million pounds, enabling it to carry 500 passengers, a crew of 100 and 100 tons of freight at speeds over 200 mph.

Veress tried to persuade several West German industrialists, research foundations and even the Bonn government to fund his atomic-powered airship. At one point, the Schlichting Shipyard in Lubeck, West Germany, went so far as to announce tentative plans to construct the $38 million dirigible. Veress even entered into preliminary discussions with General Electric to provide the reactor. But critics claimed Veress’ airship concentrated too much weight in its bow and tail (a problem with Morse’s design as well). Though this shouldn’t have been a show-stopper, the Austrian designer was unable to convince his detractors otherwise. He never ceased working on his airship design, even producing a series of beautifully drafted diagrams, but his dream never saw fruition.

Cold War rivalry drove much of the interest in nuclear-powered flight, especially during the late 1950s and early ’60s. An experimental American airplane, the Convair NB-36H, carried a nuclear reactor that operated in flight, though it did not propel the aircraft, and Russia’s Tupolev Tu-119 operated in similar fashion. Neither of those experiments resulted in a nuclear-powered airplane, but the concept of an atomic airship refused to die. Sometime in the late 1960s, the Russians also bellied up to the bar.

In 1973 the Bulgarian newspaper Trud reported that the Soviet Union had plans for a 943-foot-long nuclear-powered airship capable of carrying 1,800 passengers or 180 tons of freight at a cruising speed of 190 mph. The following year, the Associated Press published a photo showing an illustration of the Soviet dirigible.

When Jane’s Pocket Book 7 of Airship Development came out two years later, it identified the Soviet airship as the D-1, a scaled-down prototype of a larger ship, the D-4. Jane’s cited Soviet press reports stating that “test flights were…so successful that work has begun on a larger version of the craft.”No mention was made of the D series being nuclear powered, however, and Soviet press reports were famous for their exaggeration. An earlier report in Jane’s Freight Containers had suggested the D-1 was nuclear powered, but there are no indications the design ever made it off the drawing board.

The 1973 oil crisis may have lent further support to the design of nuclear-powered airships, but it wasn’t until 1983 that a seminal academic paper appeared on the subject, The Preliminary Design of a Very Large Pressure Airship for Civilian and Military Applications, by T.A. Bockrath, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles. With a helium gas volume of 250 million cubic feet and a gross lift of 15.4 million pounds, Bockrath’s design was theoretically capable of carrying a 5-million-pound payload at a cruising speed of 200 mph. His semirigid airship was by far the largest yet conceived. To support his mammoth ship, Bockrath proposed a central tube like a backbone running from nose to tail. His design foresaw a hull made from Kevlar 29, a strong but lightweight fabric commonly found in today’s bulletproof vests. Crew and cargo would travel in pressurized compartments hanging from the central tube, while compartments on the bottom hull would have an airlock for loading and unloading.

Bockrath imagined several uses for his ship, including as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch platform, a transport for intermodal containers, a troop and tank transporter, and a flying aircraft carrier. Based on Morse’s assumptions, Bockrath estimated his airship’s nuclear propulsion system would weigh in at 5 million pounds, or just 26 percent of its total weight of 19 million pounds.

Bockrath’s and Morse’s designs come up today whenever nuclear-powered airships are discussed. For example, a 1988 NASA paper that explored the use of a nuclear-powered airship/helicopter hybrid as a potential platform for stopping ozone depletion over Antarctica cites both works. But the last time anyone seriously looked at an atomic airship was 1999, when Aerostation, the journal of the Association of Balloon and Airship Constructors, devoted an entire issue to the subject. The editor claimed the attractions of atomic power are obvious, including: “immense endurance and range, fixed weight of power plant and fuel…[and] the prospect of operating extended periods without refueling.”

Though the past decade has seen a rebirth, if not exactly a resurgence, in dirigibles (Germany’s Zeppelin NT being one recent example), the nuclear-powered airship has failed to take shape as a viable alternative to conventionally powered LTAs. Despite the proposals put forth in the United States, Russia and Germany, none of the atomic airship designs ever got beyond the drawing board. But the fact that such plans were being seriously discussed at a time when atomic energy seemed a viable solution to many of the world’s problems shows that nuclear-powered airships came a lot closer to realization than many people realize.

Given today’s emphasis on green technology, the future may belong to another form of energy: solar power. Helios Airships, Solar Ship, Hybrid Air Vehicles and other companies have already developed designs for solar-powered and hybrid airships for military and civilian use—some of which have already flown. Perhaps this is how “atomic airships” will finally become a reality: by harnessing the limitless power of the sun’s nuclear fusion.

John J. Geoghegan writes frequently about unusual aviation and science topics. His forthcoming book Operation Storm, due from Crown in May 2013, is based on his article about Japan’s I-400 subs and their Seiran aircraft for the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. Further reading: The Zeppelin in the Atomic Age, by Edwin J. Kirschner.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

Aircraft and Airships in 1914 - History

Zeppelins fill the skies of Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials. The giant airships of his parallel universe carry the mail, transport soldiers into battle and explorers to the Arctic. What was once my local post office in Oxford is in Pullman’s fantasy – a zeppelin station where I could catch the evening airship to London.

When I put the books down the reality is rather disappointing. A handful of smaller airships can be found flying proudly across the United States on promotional tours for brands like Goodyear and Carnival Cruise Line. Last year, a blimp demeaned itself by setting two world records, including one for the fastest text on a touch screen mobile phone while water skiing behind a blimp. A few more are employed to fly well-heeled tourists on sight-seeing trips over the German countryside. Another can be found flying over the Amazon. And that’s about it.

The good news is that soon, the real world may finally drift closer to Pullman’s fantasy. In four to five years, all being well, one of the first production models of the enormous Airlander airship dubbed “the flying bum” will be the first airship to fly to the North Pole since 1928. The men and women on board the Airlander are tourists on an $80,000 (£62,165) luxury experience rather than explorers. Tickets are on sale today.

The Airlander won’t be alone in the skies either. About the same time, a vast new airship the shape of a blue whale, at 150m the length of an A380 and as high as a 12-storey building should rise up above its assembly plant, out of the heat and humidity of Jingmen, China. Its job: heavy lifting in some of the toughest places on Earth. The manufacturers have some Boeing-sized ambitions for this new age of the airship. They expect there to be about 150 of these airships floating around the world within 10 years.

In the history books, the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 marked the end of the brief, glorious era of the airship – except it didn’t. The US Navy continued to use blimps for anti-submarine warfare during World War Two. The American Blimp Corporation manufactured airships for advertising. New, bigger, hi-tech airships were built by Zeppelin in Germany. Engineers and pilots have spent whole careers in an industry that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore.

The HAV design doesn't need a mooring mast and ground crew like traditional models (Credit: HAV)

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