The history of blimps dates back to the year 1783. It was in this year when the Montgolfier brothers of Annonay France sent the first hot air balloon aloft. Ever since that historic event inventors have been refining designs for steerable airships, or dirigibles - blimps.
The earliest of blimp designs consisted of taking a round balloon
and stretching it at both ends to form an egg shape. These early blimps
maintained their shape by internal gas pressure and are referred to as a
non-rigid blimp design. The problem encountered by the non-rigid design was
that the balloons would often buckle under the strain of heavy loads or
From the earliest of blimp designs up to todays standards, the blimp can be broken down into four main components. These components are the envelope, the gondola, the power plant and the controls.
A blimp's envelope can be considered the skin that holds the ships content in tact. Early envelope designs consisted of various cloths, fabrics or silks stretched into the familiar cigar-like shapes that blimps have become known for. These early envelope designs had the tendency to tear or catch fire. Today, modern materials allow for an envelope of greater strength yet lighter weight than earlier envelope materials. For example, the French firm Aerazure builds blimp envelopes by taking two layers of a synthetic similar to Dacron and impregnates them with titanium dioxide. A thin, strong, gas tight membrane is then sandwiched between them. Panels of this material are then stitched together into the desired blimp shape creating the blimp's envelope.
The next component of a blimp is known as the gondola. A blimp's gondola is the portion of a blimp which houses the vessels passengers and/or crew. Similar in purpose to that of a hot air balloon, a blimp's gondola is located directly beneath the much larger envelope. Early gondola designs consisted of nothing more than enough space to hold the vessels crew. With the advent of the rigid blimp design and larger and larger blimps, the gondola quickly changed. By the 1930's the sheer mass of blimps allowed for gondolas that could comfortably hold more than 100 passengers. Blimps of this era were complete with gondolas containing passenger cabins, a promenade for viewing the land below, dining rooms, reading and writing rooms, complete kitchens, and even the first ever showers on board an airship. Todays typical blimp gondola, however, is of much more modest proportions. Today a typical blimp gondola is constructed of a honeycombed filler laminated with kevlar fibers and an epoxy resin. Without any special on board equipment, todays blimps typically carry 7 or 8 passengers and two pilots.
The power plant, or engines, of blimps is another fine example of the progress in blimp design and development. In 1852, Henri Giffard installed a small steam engine in the gondola of a spindle shaped balloon. This engine turned a propeller that pulled the airship through the air at a speed of five miles per hour against the wind. Steam power, however, proved both cumbersome and too dangerous to use. In 1898, Alberto Santos-Dumont began to experiment with gasoline engines as a power source for balloons. On October 19,1901 he steered his cigar-shaped balloon over a seven mile course above Paris. This was an epic half hour journey that brought Santos-Dumont much acclaim.
Today the engines used in blimps are a much more modern version of Santos Dumonts. Today, for example, Airship Industries Sky ship 500 HL uses two Porsche 930 engines to push 15,000 pounds of blimp through the air at speeds up to 45 knots. Each engine is situated inside the gondola in a fireproof box and sends power out to a modified tail rotor gearbox. After changing its axis of rotation, engine torque is then applied to a five blade variable pitch propeller. This propeller assembly rotates inside a duct, called a vector, and provides quiet and efficient thrust. With the ability to reverse the pitch of the propeller blades, thrust can be applied to a 350 degree arc in a vertical plane parallel to the blimps direction of travel. It is this vertical thrust arrangement that allows the modern blimp to operate from locations (and perform aerial maneuvers) that other modern airships cannot.
The controls of a blimp have also seen much advancement from the early days of blimp design. Early balloons could be steered vertically, but once airborne these crafts were merely controlled by the direction of the prevailing winds. The subsequent need for a steerable airship put inventors to the test. Balloons were attempted to be sailed much like ships, or steered by air oars and various other methods seeking to solve the problem of controlling ones direction of flight. Once again it was Alberto Santos-Dumont who gained credit for building the first dirigible that could be maneuvered in more than a light breeze. Santos-Dumont achieved this feat through the use of propellers and set the stage for future blimp maneuverability. Soon blimps were propelled by engines and propellers and maneuvered by rudders (horizontal movement) and what are known as elevators (vertical movement). Todays blimps are similarly controlled and either a control stick or steering wheel is used to move the rudder and elevator which in turn cause the blimp to dive, climb, or swing to the left or right.
While there is great contrast between the early blimps and those of today, it is important to look back to the early 1900's to get a true appreciation of how and why blimps evolved. During this time blimp design had not yet been perfected, but successful test flights had fueled the hopes of many blimp designers. The first British airship flew over London in 1902. Thomas Baldwin's California Arrow impressed visitors at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 ( and was the only airship to get off the ground there). The first Parseval non-rigid blimp built for the German Army came along in 1906. In 1907 Count von Zeppelins LZ 3 successfully completed an eight hour voyage. In July of 1908 a new and improved LZ 4 made a 12 hour flight to Switzerland and back. In October of 1910 French journalist-adventurer Walter Wellman set out in his French-built America in the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic. Although his attempt was unsuccessful, by this time the entire world had taken notice and the promise of successful blimp navigation was in tact and growing. Such promise, however, would prove to be challenged.
In the early days of blimp design there were also many catastrophes that led to the need for better and safer design standards. Early blimps suffered greatly from fire, technical problems, malfunctions and inadequate design. In 1921, for example, a wave of airship disasters began. The British R-34 (the first airship to successfully cross the Atlantic) was wrecked at its mooring. The Roma, built in 1922 by Italy for the United States, exploded over Hampton Roads, Virginia. In 1923 The French Dixmude was lost in the Mediterranean. In 1925 the United States Shenandoah was destroyed by violent winds. The United States Navy built two more airships. These were the Akron, destroyed in 1933, and the Macon, which crashed in 1935.
During this period of the 1900s the thrust of blimp design had been fueled largely by the interest in blimps use for military purposes. Germany was the first nation to recognize the military possibilities of a powered airship that could be navigated. Supremacy in air navigation passed from France to Germany largely through the efforts of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. During World War I the Germans used von Zeppelins rigid blimp design to bomb London. However, once the defending British pursuit planes were able to climb to the airships cruising altitude, the slow and cumbersome blimps proved easy targets.
By World War II improved non-rigid blimps using helium as the lifting gas were being produced for military efforts. In World War II these blimps were used for patrolling, hunting submarines, and escorting convoys. They were still huge targets, but almost none were shot down. After the war blimps were used as flying radar stations for coastal defense systems. The use of helium and technical improvements, such as radar, insured safe operation of non-rigid blimps. Increasing use of the helicopter and the great expense of building and maintaining blimps eventually halted the millitary's use of blimps.
While the blimps use as a military resource was recognized early on, it was Germany's Alfred Colsman who foresaw the use of blimps as more than a mere military resource. Mr. Colsman was hired by Count von Zeppelin to act as the business manager of The Zeppelin Company (a company founded in 1908 which exists to this day). The Zeppelin Company's interest was to build blimps for the German Army. The German Army, however, preferred its own nonrigid Parsevals and remained unconvinced that rigid airships could ever achieve more than marginal military utility. Mr. Colsman quickly realized that in order for The Zeppelin Company to survive it would have to create its own customers. And so, in November of 1909 Mr. Colsman formed a passenger airship company, The German Airship Transport Company.
In a very short time a network of cities all over Germany had agreed to build airship sheds from which the passenger line could operate. On June 28, 1910 Dusseldorf Germany received the honor of originating the first paying passenger flight of the LZ 7, christened the Deutschland. The flight, like many that would follow, was not a success. Many problems associated with the early passenger paying airships stemmed from the lack of reliable weather forecasts. It wasn't until the year 1911 that the first true success for commercial airship flights was seen. Due in large part to three months of fine weather, the summer of 1911 saw The German Airship Transport Company's LZ 10 make almost one hundred flights without one serious problem. The LZ 10's passenger gondola resembled a first-class railroad coach complete with the days finest passenger amenities.
While traveling aboard blimps in fine style became popular, the rigid design pioneered by Count von Zeppelin was making it possible to construct airships of tremendous proportions. The biggest blimp ever created was the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was 804 feet long and 135 feet in its largest diameter. This craft could lift a total weight of about 235 tons. It carried 50 passengers and a crew of 60, along with baggage, mail cargo and a heavy load of fuel. At a length of 804 feet it would dwarf any of todays modern aircraft, including a Boeing 747 and Goodyear's most modern blimp The Spirit of Akron. In fact, the Hindenberg was only 78 feet shorter than the 882 foot long Titanic. Also impressive on the Hindenberg were its lavish interiors. On two decks inside the passenger gondola fifty people could live in the style and comfort of the days grandest hotels. Eventually the Hindenberg would make routine crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. Cruising at an altitude of around 650 feet and hitting speeds near eighty miles per hour the Hindenberg would eventually make the transatlantic passage in a time of sixty one and one half hours. While the promise of safe passenger airship travel seemed apparent, the Hindnberg like many blimps before her eventually fell victim to disaster. On May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station New Jersey, the Hindenberg was destroyed by fire in an attempt to land. Thirty-five of the blimps 97 people on-board were killed and the history of blimp passenger transport was forever changed.
While the history of blimps is one of great change, great success and great disasters, todays modern blimps retain the reliability and services that would make early blimp designers like Count von Zeppelin proud. Today tiny one and two person hot air blimps are used primarily for aerial photography. There are also the larger nine and ten person vessels which carry passengers only for sight-seeing, functioning mostly as TV camera platforms during news and sporting events or as flying billboards. In the public mind blimps are still inextricably linked to the popular blimps flown by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and more recently those flown by Fuji Camera Films. There have been no major blimp disasters in this decade and for the most part blimps have retained their stature of being able to relay aerial reconnaissance images to those on land below. Since 1783 mans intrigue for these gigantic balloons continues and the blimp soars onward.
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