Defense Media Network

Book Review – Airship: Design, Development and Disaster

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster, by John Swinfield; Naval Institute Press; 336 pages.

Elegant, glamorous and doomed, the romantic appeal of the airship is hard to resist.  Everyone knows the tragic saga of Germany’s Zeppelins – Hindenburg, like RMS Titanic, is a common metaphor for disaster – but the story of British airships is equally dismaying. And the U.S. Navy had its own grim record of airship catastrophes.

This book recounts the sad, brief history of airships, with particular focus on Britain’s experience. It is a tale of wishful thinking, bureaucratic cover-up, over-ambitious technology, ferocious inter-service rivalry, design compromises driven by cost-cutting accountants, and shattered dreams. In short, it is a tale that will be painfully familiar to anyone who has spent much time around today’s aerospace industry.

An introductory section gives capsule biographies of forty-four key figures. Seventeen died in airship crashes.

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster Cover

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster, by John Swinfield; Naval Institute Press; 336 pages.

The first manned hot air balloon ascended in 1783. By the 1860s, hydrogen balloons were used for reconnaissance in the American Civil War. But the challenge was to make lighter-than-air craft go where you wanted them to go, rather than wherever the wind took them. Generations of inventors failed to solve this problem.

Finally, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917), a Württemberg cavalry officer, built a successful rigid airship. His LZ1 made its first flight in 1900, immortalizing the Count’s name as a class of aircraft (and a classic English rock band.) During World War I, Zeppelins of the Imperial German Army and Navy made 51 bombing raids on Britain, dropping 196 tons of bombs that killed 557 people and injured 1,358.  The strategic impact was negligible, but the psychological effect was immense. Rather than surrender their ships, the crews of surviving Zeppelins destroyed them at the end of World War I. Under the Versailles treaty, Germany was forbidden to build military aircraft.  At one point, the Zeppelin works was reduced to making aluminum cookware.

Rigid airships were framed in carefully engineered skeletons, usually aluminum alloy, braced with steel wire. The frames were covered in cotton or linen fabric stiffened and waterproofed with “dope” – cellulose acetate and powdered aluminum in acetone. The gas cells that held the hydrogen (or later, inert helium) were stitched from squares of “goldbeater’s skin” an extraordinarily light and tough membrane from the intestines of calves – 200,000 calves for a typical World War I Zeppelin, 750,000 for USS Shenandoah (ZR 1) the first Navy airship built in America, and the first to use helium for lift.

Following World War I, airship visionaries in the United Kingdom imagined fleets of giant vessels tying the far-flung Empire together with regular passenger and mail service. A four day flight to India rather than a three week sea voyage; seven days to Australia rather than five weeks!  R-34, a promising wartime prototype reverse-engineered from the design of downed Zeppelin bombers, made a successful trans-Atlantic crossing and return flight in July, 1919.  R-38, an even bigger model designed for the Royal Navy, was sold to the U.S. Navy, but broke up in the air on a test flight near the city of Hull, England on Aug. 23, 1921.

R-101 Disaster

The wreckage of the airship R-101 which crashed into a hillside near Beauvais, France on Oct. 5, 1930. Mary Evans Picture Library photo

During the 1920s Britain’s hopes for lighter-than air flight came to rest on two prototypes:  R-100, designed for Vickers by the brilliant engineer Barnes Wallis (1887-1979) and R-101, designed by a team under the new Air Ministry.

Because everything was bitterly politicized in that era (so like our own), they came to be known as the “Capitalist airship” and the “Socialist airship.” For structural strength, R-101 had a steel frame, rather than aluminum.  Because gasoline (“petrol”) engines were regarded as a fire hazard, she used immensely heavy diesels originally designed for locomotives. Rushed into service for a spectacular passage to India, she was overloaded with VIP baggage, cases of champagne and a red carpet for state dinners in the clouds. On her maiden flight, she got as far as Northern France, crashing in a storm on Oct. 5, 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people onboard.  R-100 was decommissioned and scrapped in 1931. “For some people, airships were a symbol of Britain’s, class system,” writes Swinfield, “toys for spoiled children financed by the poor who would never sail in them.”

Readers seeking detailed technical specifications will be disappointed. This book is the work of an enthusiast, not an historian. It is a journalist’s book, not an engineer’s book. The author was more interested in people than in technology.

There is much on interpersonal chemistry and not so much on metallurgy or aerodynamics, and that will please some readers.

This is also a very British book, which may leave some American readers baffled by idiomatic Anglicisms and the geography of the U.K.  A map of locations mentioned in the text would have been helpful.