Annihilation of the Rigid Airship Industry

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A rigid airship is a type of airship (or dirigible) in which the envelope is supported by an internal framework rather than by being kept in shape by the pressure of the lifting gas within the envelope, as in blimps (also called pressure airships) and semi-rigid airships. Rigid airships are often commonly called Zeppelins, though this technically refers only to airships built by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company.
  • The term zeppelin originally referred to airships manufactured by the German Zeppelin Company, which built and operated the first rigid airships in the early years of the twentieth century. The initials LZ, for Luftschiff Zeppelin (German for "Zeppelin airship"), usually prefixed their craft's serial identifiers.
  • Rigid airships consist of a structural framework usually covered in doped fabric containing a number of gasbags or cells containing a lifting gas.
    • In the majority of airships constructed before the Second World War, highly flammable hydrogen was used for this purpose, resulting in many airships such as the British R101 and the German Hindenburg being lost in catastrophic fires.
    • The inert gas helium was used by American airships in the 1920s and 1930s; it is also used in all modern airships.
  • Airship
  • Rigid airship
Framework of a Rigid Airship
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Construction of USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) in 1923

1937: Final Hindenburg Flight
After making the first South American flight of the 1937 season in late March, Hindenburg left Frankfurt for Lakehurst on the evening of 3 May, on its first scheduled round trip between Europe and North America that season. Although strong headwinds slowed the crossing, the flight had otherwise proceeded routinely as she approached for a landing three days later.
  • Hindenburg's arrival on 6 May was delayed for several hours to avoid a line of thunderstorms passing over Lakehurst, but around 7:00 pm the airship was cleared for its final approach to the Naval Air Station, which she made at an altitude of 200 m (660 ft) with Captain Max Pruss in command.
  • At 7:21 pm a pair of landing lines were dropped from the nose of the ship and were grabbed hold of by ground handlers.
  • Four minutes later, at 7:25 pm Hindenburg burst into flames and dropped to the ground in a little over half a minute.
  • Of the 36 passengers and 61 crew aboard, 13 passengers and 22 crew died, as well as one member of the ground crew, a total of 36 lives lost.

The exact location of the initial fire, its source of ignition, and the source of fuel remain subjects of debate. The cause of the accident has never been determined conclusively, although many hypotheses have been proposed.
  • Sabotage theories notwithstanding, one hypothesis often put forth involves a combination of gas leakage and atmospheric static conditions.
  • Manually-controlled and automatic valves for releasing hydrogen were located partway up one-meter diameter ventilation shafts that ran vertically through the airship.
  • Hydrogen released into a shaft, whether intentionally or because of a stuck valve, mixes with air already in the shaft- potentially in an explosive ratio.
  • Alternatively, a gas cell could have been ruptured by the breaking of a structural tension wire causing a mixing of hydrogen with air.
  • The high static charge collected from flying within stormy conditions and inadequate grounding of the outer envelope to the frame could have ignited any resulting gas-air mixture at the top of the airship.
  • In support of the hypothesis that hydrogen was leaking from the aft portion of the Hindenburg prior to the conflagration, water ballast was released at the rear of the airship and 6 crew members were dispatched to the bow to keep the craft level.
  • Another more recent theory involves the airship's outer covering.
    • The silvery cloth covering contained material including cellulose nitrate which is highly flammable.
    • This theory is controversial and has been rejected by other researchers because the outer skin burns too slowly to account for the rapid flame propagation and gaps in the fire correspond with internal gas cell divisions, which would not be visible if the fire had spread across the skin first.
The End of the Industry
Following the Hindenburg disaster, the Zeppelin company resolved to use helium in their future passenger airships. However, by this time, Europe was well on the path to the Second World War, and the United States, the only country with substantial helium reserves, refused to sell the necessary gas. Commercial international aviation was limited during the war, so development of new airships was halted. Although several companies, including Goodyear, proposed post-war commercial designs, these were largely to no avail.

A few words about helium: United States refused to provide helium, and Hindenburg ended up using hydrogen?
  • U.S. law prevented the Hindenburg from using helium instead of hydrogen, which is more flammable. After the crash of the hydrogen-filled R101, in which most of the crew died in the subsequent fire rather than the impact itself, Hindenburg designer Hugo Eckener sought to use helium, a less flammable lifting gas.
  • The Hindenburg Disaster: 9 Surprising Facts
You gotta love the above excerpt from the History stories. Since when did helium become flammable?
  • As helium is lighter than air it can be used to inflate airships, blimps and balloons, providing lift. Although hydrogen is cheaper and more buoyant, helium is preferred as it is non-flammable.
  • Helium is an inert gas. Inert quite literally means non-combustible. In fact, helium (in its liquid state) is actually used as a coolant for things like rocket ships, MRI machines, and particle accelerators.
  • Is helium flammable? - Ask Zephyr, the helium experts
KD: I don't know about you, but the decision to feel up with hydrogen at this point in time sounds somewhat... suspicious.

A Few Photographs
The Dining Room
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Hindenburg Hangar
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Inside the Hindenburg

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Back To The Future
Certain things never fail to speak up. The tech gets abandoned to be resurrected 100 years later. All those ancient faxes, hyperloops and such. Where are we heading to with this "new" approach to air travel, back to the future?

Much of the world has no access to paved roads. Vast cargo-bearing airships could reach places that planes and trucks can’t.
  • This is the prime example of how suspicions this entire issue is.
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High-tech cargo airship being built in California
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Source
The Aeroscraft airship, a high-tech prototype airship, is seen in a World War II-era hangar in Tustin, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. Work is almost done on a 230-foot rigid airship inside a blimp hangar at a former military base in Orange Co. The huge cargo-carrying airship has shiny aluminum skin and a rigid, 230-foot aluminum and carbon fiber skeleton. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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Source

The massive blimp-like aircraft flies but just barely, hovering only a dozen feet off a military hangar floor during flight testing south of Los Angeles. Still, the fact that the hulking Aeroscraft could fly for just a few minutes represents a step forward in aviation, according to the engineers who developed it. The Department of Defense and NASA have invested $35 million in the prototype because of its potential to one day carry more cargo than any other aircraft to disaster zones and forward military bases.

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And here is where we could get suspicious. We all have seen the above "hangar" shape. May be those were not originally meant for trains.

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KD: These airships are so much safer too. Just a thought.
  • I think it was a global eradication of this mode of transportation. While writing this post I ran into this Russian airship related page through some google images. I do not see Russians caring much for that 1936 Hindenburg catastrophe. So why did they scrap the program as well? No helium? Check it out, it's worth it.
  • Russian pre-1917 airships
1894
Olga Romanoff
Olga Romanoff; or, The syren of the skies : a sequel to "The angel of the revolution".
Read #1 - Read #2
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Which Olga Romanoff was this? The one linked below? Was she 12 y.o. when she wrote her books?
 

Banta

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It's pretty obvious that energy and transportation has been derailed (pun intended) by industry and governmental interests. Just look at the decline of public transportation infrastructure and the history of the electric car to confirm this, among many other things. It hardly matters if anyone directly conspired to crash the Hindenburg, the conditions were set for any accident being able to serve as a scapegoat. None of this is even a grand conspiracy, it's just how there are winners and losers in commerce and politics.

Beyond that, the actual age of this technology and how widespread it was seem to be open questions. I suspect as always that there's "nothing new under the sun" and in the way that it's silly to think that "ancient man" was incapable of sailing across an ocean, it's also silly to think that someone, during humanity's seemingly long-time interest in ascending into the sky, wouldn't have figured out how to put some hydrogen in a bag.

Interesting sidenote, per the wikinarrative, hydrogen has been known since at least 1671, "Robert Boyle discovered and described the reaction between iron filings and dilute acids, which results in the production of hydrogen gas." But Henry Cavendish, you know, the metal balls in a barn to weigh the Earth and eventually assign a value for gravity guy gets the credit for the discovery nearly 100 years later. To contrast, any evidence of helium wasn't until "August 18, 1868, as a bright yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers in the spectrum of the chromosphere of the Sun" and then wasn't isolated on Earth until 1895! I find that interesting as Helium is the second element on the periodic table (which the basis for the modern version came out in 1869) was supposedly unknown until then. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something fishy about helium...
 
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    Makes one wonder what kind of cruise airships we could have had today, and what this entire industry would have looked like.

    Of course, safety comes to mind too. With airships being virtually “unsinkable”, I can’t help but think about all of the victims of the conventional air travel.
     

    Banta

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    Makes one wonder what kind of cruise airships we could have had today, and what this entire industry would have looked like.

    Of course, safety comes to mind too. With airships being virtually “unsinkable”, I can’t help but think about all of the victims of the conventional air travel.
    It's stuff like this that affirms my position that we are living in a different civilization than even 100ish years ago, no matter how one thinks that went down. Riding an airship seems like a beautiful, relaxing experience that is somewhat beyond just a method of travel. In the same way that the buildings of the past serve seemingly an artistic function, our current society places little to no value on this. You will fly to your destination at 450 MPH and go about your business! We will slap up some metal beams, plastic, and drywall for your fast food restaurant!

    But obviously, with the airship, it seems like it goes even deeper... because, sure, maybe jets would win out as the most popular mode of long distance transportation, but you'd think that airship cruises could be a real viable vacation idea, an alternative to boat cruises. Were people so spooked by the Hindenburg but the Titanic didn't register? ...Possibly, actually, given the "advances" in mass media in the 25 years from the Titanic to the Hindenburg... I mean, we got to see the thing blow up, in nearly real-time!

    Still, that's all why it's so clearly politicized and manipulated, similar to the tactics taken by the oil companies throughout the last 100 years.
     

    Atlantis

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    What were the problems in our modern era with these giant crafts? First and foremost they present a giant surface area for the wind to move against it like a sail. Cross winds and headwinds of a powerful nature create serious problems for these kinds of crafts. An airplane minimizes the surface area in the direction of travel in order to be most efficient yet these Zeppelin airships have a very large surface area problem in the direction of travel and crosswinds on the side even have more surface area to push the airship around with. Secondly, they will be interacting with lightning and the metal parts inside the airship will act as an attractant to the lightning. In modern aircraft the metal coating around the plane acts as a Faraday cage and protects the interior of the craft from electric forces, however, in an airship this would not be the case as the metal skeleton and other metal parts would preferentially attract these electric forces to the detriment to the rest of the airship. If hydrogen is used as the gas that provides lift then spurious electrical forces would be a great danger to the ship for a hydrogen fire is very hot and burns at 2000 degrees C, the same as natural gas. It also has a low ignition energy and many explosions have happened in transfer stations providing hydrogen.
    With so many intractable problems using these airship crafts in our present day weather environment it is a wonder that they were used at all. The construction cost, the size of the airship itself and the gargantuan hanger that they were constructed in and housed when not in use must have been resource intensive. Without modern powerful engines to push the Zeppelin around in high winds it would be impossible to direct them. So let's consider a perfect environment for these crafts to operate. The main problem with an airship would be high winds and cross winds so let's eliminate them as a thought experiment. These winds also make the propulsion of these crafts difficult so by eliminating them we eliminate the need for extremely powerful engines to propel them. Now we come to the lightning problem so let us propose an environment where there is no lightning or rain or storms in the sky where these crafts originally flew. Now we have hypothesized the perfect environment for zeppelins to fly: no wind, no storms and no rain. With no wind the airships would be incredibly stable and controllable. Is this not the climate of Eden? A mild climate over the entire earth with no rain, wind and storms. The only moisture from the sky would be a mist. If there were no storms then lightning would not happen and the crafts could sail in the air without the danger of hydrogen combustion and conflagration. The canal geoengineering found all over the world was a result of this Eden environment of no rain and storms, so waters had to be brought to the lands to be irrigated. I am proposing that the airships were designed originally for another era: Eden weather. The victory columns were also from this era and were used as you say mooring masts to drop of passengers and supplies. I think that the people then were 18-20 feet high so climbing the tower would be less vigorous on them than of our people of a much smaller stature. A thought occurred to me as I write this," Is there room for a large man to climb inside the victory towers?" If not then I think they used air pressure to elevate and lower passengers and the steps were added after the downfall of this Eden time civilization when men shrank to our present size and the antique tech of pneumatic engines was lost.
    Imagine flying in a Zeppelin in calm air and descending to land and moor on a tower in the center of a beautiful great city. It must have been a fantastic experience to fly slowly over the country while conversing with travelers and having dinner.
     
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    Helium was also used, and being non flammable was a much safer alternative to hydrogen.

    As far as winds and other things go. Do we have any accounts of these issues hampering the operation of the entire airship industry?

    These are non-rigids on parade.

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  • Atlantis

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    Your postings of photographs of a Zeppelin moored to a mast in a vertical position speaks volumes about winds and the problems associated. A blimp is an extremely large sail and unlike airplanes they are not put aloft in stormy weather. Think of them like a great ship in a sea of air. Now imagine a 60-mile per hour wind blowing 90 degrees into the side of the blimp. Even with powerful engines they are going to be difficult to control unlike an airplane that has much, much less side surface area presented to the wind. I have been on an aircraft where side winds pushed the plane sideways in a pulsing manner and was uncomfortable. A blimp presents a side to the wind thousands of times larger than the aircraft. It is unstable in high winds and is grounded when they occur.
     
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    Well, if that’s the case, such a change in atmospheric conditions did not happen that long ago. That could place a totally different spin on the reasoning of why our contemporary airplanes were introduced, but we would need more information.

    At the same time, if airships below could really fly, I’m down with atmospheric changes. We also have approximate dates of when they could still fly.
    Also of interested, and possibly related to this entire issue, are the true reasons for the below fashion. Dates could also be important.
     

    Banta

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    I'm not sure that airships would have required a radically different weather pattern to be viable. Here's what a modern airship service claims:

    Is the airship affected by winds or bad weather ?
    Like any aircraft, the airship is affected by weather. Normally, we would not want to take off or land in winds exceeding 30 knots. Roughly speaking we would operate in conditions similar to those of a helicopter.

    While on the mooring mast, we can sustain winds up to 100 knots.


    Although we can fly in rain or bad weather, and we can operate during a storm safely (because the airship is a buoyant vehicle), we would rather not as it becomes uncomfortable for the crew and passengers.
    100 knots is 115 mph, so those are some pretty serious winds. It's also worth mentioning that it isn't like airplanes do not take precautions to avoid the weather, they very often do by changing flight plans or cancelling flights all together. I would also suggest that it's not a given that our current civilization has a better grasp at predicting weather. Maybe an old sky captain's intuition is worth more than all the data in a spreadsheet.

    Since we don't even have a record of large scale airship usage throughout history, then we obviously don't have an accurate record of their accident rate. Basically, as interesting as it may be to speculate on wildly different weather patterns in the past, it seems a bit like putting the car in front of the horses if we haven't proven airships being a more fundamental mode of transportation at some point in history first. I personally have no problem believing that airships could have been around for far longer than conventionally stated, while also never being anything more than a sort of novelty (or maybe limited to military forces). Not saying I do believe that, but there are lots of speculative options when we suspect that we're missing large parts of the historical record. Maybe the "airship civilization" didn't value travel in the same way we do. Maybe they had stargates! Anybody's guess is valid.

    If there was a time when airships were roughly as plentiful as airplanes during the last 60 years, someone did a pretty damn good job of erasing that. It makes drawing any conclusions almost impossible.
     

    Fernandorubio

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    I think that the vector lift and thrust of these aircraft, we did not understand. Let's remember the sightings in the United States of 19, for example.

    Greetings KD
     
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  • Fernandorubio

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    I think they moved with a "different" technology. To sum it up in some way. Greetings
     

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