History of Dirigibles

The first real dirigible, driven by a steam engine, was built by Henri Giffard of France in 1852. Other early experimenters were Paul Haenlein, who built an airship in Germany in 1872; and Charles Renard and A. C. Krebs, French army officers, whose La France was flown in 1884. The man who made the dirigible practical was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany. He completed his first rigid airship in 1900. In 1910, his first passenger dirigible, the Deutschland, was flying between Düsseldorf and Friedrichshafen, a distance of 300 miles (480 km). At that time rigid dirigibles became known as Zeppelins.

During World War I, Germany had a fleet of Zeppelins that were used in bombing raids over England, but they proved easy targets for airplanes and antiaircraft artillery. After the war the Zeppelin Los Angeles was built in Germany for the United States. France and Great Britain took over Germany's remaining long-range Zeppelins as spoils of war and forbade Germany to construct more.

British Rigid Dirigibles

In 1919 the British dirigible R-34 flew from Great Britain to the United States in four days and made the return trip in three. Great Britain constructed two commercial dirigibles, the R-100 and R-101, both completed in 1929. The R-100 made a successful round trip from England to Canada, but the R-101 crashed over France, the result of a flaw in its design. The R-100 was then scrapped and the British stopped building rigid dirigibles.

United States Dirigibles

The U.S. Army acquired the Italian semirigid airship Roma in 1921 and then procured, from an American builder, the RS-1 semirigid airship in 1925. The Roma was a hydrogen-inflated airship and was destroyed by fire. After that, all American airships used helium, which does not burn.

The first American-built rigid dirigible was the U.S. Navy's 682–foot (208–m) Shenandoah, completed in 1923. It broke apart in mid-air in 1925, killing 14 and injuring 2 of the 43 persons aboard. The Los Angeles, a 656–foot (200–m) rigid dirigible with a capacity of 2,500,000 cubic feet (70,000 m 3 ), was built for the Navy in Germany and delivered to the United States in 1924. It continued in service until 1932.

The Akron , a 785–foot (239–m) rigid dirigible, was commissioned by the Navy in 1931. At the time it was the world's largest airship, having a capacity of 6,500,000 cubic feet (184,000 m 3 ). After a number of voyages, it was destroyed during a thunderstorm in 1933. Of the 77 persons aboard, 73 were killed. The Macon, sister airship to the Akron, was completed in 1933 and came down in the Pacific Ocean in 1935. Only two of its crew were lost.

German Rigid Dirigibles

In 1925, the Allies permitted Germany to resume construction of long-range rigid dirigibles for their own use. Under Dr. Hugo Eckener, the Zeppelin Construction Works completed the Graf Zeppelin, with a capacity of 3,700,000 cubic feet (105,000 m 3 ), in 1928. The airship made many transoceanic flights with a special service between Germany and Brazil. It flew around the world in 1929.

A new and larger Zeppelin, the Hindenburg, was completed in 1936. It had a capacity of 7,000,000 cubic feet (198,000 m 3 ), but, like other German airships, used highly flammable hydrogen gas. (Only the United States has an adequate supply of helium for airships.) After 141 successful transatlantic flights, the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire following an explosion as it arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, May 6, 1937. Of the 97 people aboard, 35 died.