How did airships work?

The Hindenburg and LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin were behemoths of the sky in the early 20th century but how did these hulking beasts stay in the air? We caught up with Airship and Aviation Historian Dan Grossman to find out.


How airships work

Dan Grossman


Why were airships first made?

What they offered is that they existed! They were the only thing that could fly at the time; the airplane had not yet been invented when the first zeppelin took to the sky. The inspiration behind them was balloons and Count Zeppelin observed military observation balloons in the USA during the US Civil War. This got him thinking about lighter than air as a means of flight. Airships were a natural progression and the original idea was like an air train with multiple compartments.


How did they work? Why did they use hydrogen? How were they controlled?

They were controlled using rudders and elevators; somewhat similar to the controls you get on an airplane or a boat. In the simplest terms, the rudder make it go left and right while the elevator makes the nose go up and down. Unlike a plane, pointing the nose up or down, won’t necessarily make it go up or down because it’s lighter than air. Ultimately what makes an airship rise is the fact they are lighter than the air they displace. The volume of what’s inside an airship weighs less than air so it stays airborne. Airships do have some aerodynamic lift and engines power the airship along so for example when you point the nose down, air deflects off the top of the airship and exerts negative lift, pushing the airship down against its natural tendency to rise. It’s a combination of aerostatic and aerodynamic.


How airships work

The classy interior of the Hindenburg


How airships work

The Hindenburg flying over New York in 1937. Note the Nazi insignias


The first airships got their lift from hydrogen. It has the best lifting properties because it is the element on the periodic table with the lowest atomic weight so is the lightest of any element and the lightest gas that exists. They knew of the dangers but it was the only lighter than air gas that was abundant, cheap and easy to make. You can’t make helium you can only find it and it wasn’t obtainable at the early 20th century.


What was the greatest of all the rigid airships?

Well, Hindenburg was really the height of airship development. It was the most technologically advanced and the most capable by far. The most famous was probably the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin and it flew millions of miles and even went to the Arctic. It was primitive compared to Hindenburg in terms of range, speed, payload and structural integrity. Hindenburg was a better-built ship.


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