Today, we ask if we'll ever ride in a dirigible.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Four government agencies met
in 1975 -- NASA, the FAA, the Navy, and the
Department of Transportation. They gathered in a
workshop to reassess lighter-than-air flight. This
meeting took place 39 years after the German
zeppelin Hindenburg burned at Lakehurst, New
Jersey, and virtually put an end to commercial
The Hindenburg disaster branded flammable hydrogen
as unsafe for buoying these great whales up in the
sky. It had to be replaced with helium. But, on the
eve of WW-II, we controlled the world supply of
helium. When Germany couldn't get helium,
dirigibles went out of business.
The 1975 workshop didn't just ask whether these
gentle monsters should be made to fly again. It
also brought to light a stunning array of
extensions of the old technology -- things like
hybrid airships with airfoil-shaped bodies to add
lift in flight; small blimps for urban transport;
airships with different shapes; blimps to move
large, heavy items that won't fit in airplanes;
airships for all payloads, ranges, and speeds.
The workshop concluded that the potential for
airships is enormous, but that the question of
economic feasibility won't be answered in a paper
study. Someone, they said, must bite the bullet and
make a commercial venture to answer that question.
Thirteen years have passed, and we see few
commercial blimps or dirigibles in the sky. Perhaps
American industry has failed to respond to the
challenge and take the risk, but perhaps not. The
technology is, in fact, returning. The lumber
industry is considering load-carrying blimps to
move large logs out of remote places. The Navy,
which gave up airships 25 years ago, recently let
contracts for a large surveillance blimp. And we
find a new interest in developing commercial
Whether we'll ever again have the chance to ride a
stately zeppelin across the Atlantic -- dining in
palatial elegance -- is not clear. One problem with
airships is that their slow speed makes schedules
terribly vulnerable to changing winds.
The dirigible wrote a strange chapter in the
history of technology. It's a beautiful machine
that's come and gone but may yet return. That sort
of thing doesn't often happen, but lighter-than-air
flight suffered a strange detour in its
development. The airplane distracted us from its
potential, but I think we'll see it again.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds