Sunday, March 12, 2006


It’s a shame the Hindenburg got such bad press. The airship had a lot going for it that, I think, has been overshadowed by the explosion. For instance, compare the pictures of the interior, here, to the accommodations on your next Southwest flight. Have a look at that lounge area! If you’ve seen the third Indiana Jones movie, with Sean Connery, it gives a pretty good feel for the lounge. (The business about launching an airplane from a dirigible came from a couple U.S. Navy airships, the Akron and Macon. Sorry, no link handy at the moment, but a Google search will turn them up. Anyway, the Hindenburg was never a flying aircraft carrier, but other airships did test the idea.)

I’ve read a couple theories about why the Hindenburg burned as it did. The first, of course, is that they had to use hydrogen instead of helium. (The U.S. had much of the world’s helium supply and wasn’t about to give it to a country it could potentially wind up fighting in a war, especially a country that had used airships in the Great War.) The second was that it was the fabric covering that really burned, which makes sense to me since hydrogen’s flames tend to go straight up, since hydrogen is so light.

The real challenges with airships were a bit different. For instance, they need to be properly ballasted, but they get lighter as the engines burn fuel. Today, we might pump the helium into storage tanks to compensate, but at the time the choices were to either vent gas (which you might need later, and anyway that stuff was expensive), or to take on weight somehow. Some of those old airships had rain gutters – when they needed to increase ballast, they’d snuggle up to a rainstorm and fill tanks with rain water.Another big challenge is maneuverability. Airships are relatively light and have a lot of surface area, so there’s always a risk they’ll get tossed around by the wind and won’t have the engine power to go the way they need to go. To me, this is the biggest challenge with designing an airship.These are all problems we might have solved in time and might still solve some day.

Maybe it’s worth thinking about the direction we took: we got speed and reliability, but when’s the last time you flew on a plane that had a piano in the main dining lounge?

No comments: