The Hindenburg Wasn't Alone: Here's a Look at 23 Intriguing Airship Adventures
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Age of AirshipsLong before jet aircraft came to dominate air transport, a variety of lighter-than-air vessels known as airships sought to combine the capabilities of ships at sea with the radical new ability of soaring through the skies.
For a few decades, now known as the great Age of Airships, aviation pioneers around the world tried to outdo each other with larger and more sophisticated airship designs, while making longer and more daring aerial voyages.
Here's a look at some of the most interesting innovations and adventures during the Age of Airships, from the first steerable airship (sporting a sail-like rudder) and an early French craft used for reconnaissance and bombing to the first Zeppelins and the infamous Hindenburg.
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Blanchard crosses the English ChannelBy definition, an airship differs from a lighter-than-air balloon because it is steerable.
Just a few years after the first balloon flight in Paris in 1783, the French aviation pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard devised a hot-air balloon steered by oars, flapping wings and a hand-powered propeller.
Although the steering devices didn't work, on Jan. 7, 1785, Blanchard and an American, John Jeffries, were carried by the wind from Dover in England to Guînes in northern France — the first aerial crossing of the English Channel.
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Giffard airshipThe Giffard dirigible, built in France in 1852, was the first truly steerable airship. It was steered by a triangular, sail-like rudder and driven by a propeller attached to a small steam engine.
In September 1852, inventor Henri Giffard flew the hydrogen-filled airship for 17 miles (27 kilometers) from Paris to the village of Élancourt in 3 hours, maneuvering along the way.
Even so, his engine was not powerful enough to make the return journey against the wind.
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Aeron dirigibleAmerican airship pioneer Solomon Andrews flew an experimental airship, the Aeron dirigible, over New Jersey and New York after 1863.
The Aeron had no engines, but instead used a wing-shaped gasbag and steering vanes that let Andrews control its height, speed and direction.
Andrews' ideas inspired later airship designs, including the modern Airlander Hybrid Air Vehicle, which gets some of its lift from a wing-shaped gasbag.
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Early French airshipsAn experimental French military airship, La France, made the first fully controlled flight from an airbase near Paris in 1884, covering a distance of 5 miles (8 km) before returning to where it took off.
La France was steered by vanes and driven by a large propeller, powered by an 8.5-horsepower electric motor and a zinc-chlorine battery that weighed almost half a ton.
After several successful flights by La France, the French Army ordered its first airships for military reconnaissance and bombing duties — the Patrie, Republique and Liberte.
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First ZeppelinsUnlike the early French airships, which used a flexible gasbag filled with hydrogen, the designs by the early German airship pioneer Ferdinand von Zeppelin used a rigid gasbag, held in shape by an internal structure.
Zeppelin's first rigid airship, LZ-1, flew from a floating hangar on Lake Constance in southern Germany on July 2, 1900.
From 1906 to 1908, Zeppelin built three more experimental airships. The most successful, LZ-4, made a 12-hour flight over Switzerland on July 1, 1908.
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First passenger airshipsThe first commercially successful passenger airship, Zeppelin's LZ 10 Schwaben, with room for 20 passengers, went into service in July 1911.
The Schwaben carried more than 1,500 people on 218 flights across Germany for the world's first airline, DELAG — the "Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft," or "German Airship Travel Corporation."
But the airship broke free of its moorings during a storm at an airfield near Düsseldorf in June 1912, and it was destroyed when a spark of static electricity ignited the hydrogen in its gasbag.
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First airship fatalitiesAnother Zeppelin, LZ-14, was the first airship owned by the Imperial German Navy. On Sept. 9, 1913, with a crew of 20 on board, the airship was ordered out on maneuvers over Germany's North Sea coast.
The ship flew into strong winds and cold rain, which caused the hydrogen in the gasbag to contract and lose lift. The airship fell into the sea near the Heligoland islands, off the German and Danish coasts. Thirteen of the crew were drowned, and seven were rescued by boats.
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Cuxhaven raidAt the outbreak of World War I, the British public and military authorities were terrified by what they saw as the "Zeppelin Menace," so several bombing raids were staged to destroy the German airships.
One of the most famous was the Cuxhaven Raid, on Christmas Day 1914, by seaplanes carried to the North Sea coast of Germany on Royal Navy ships — the first combined sea and air attack in history.
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Zeppelin bombing attacksGermany used its airships for aerial bombing during World War I, beginning with a Zeppelin attack on the Belgian city of Liège in August 1914 — the first time that bombs were dropped on a city from the air.
Airships were the only German aircraft capable of sustained operations over Great Britain at the time. Between 1915 and 1918, German airships — most of them Zeppelins — carried out 51 bombing raids over Britain, including over the city of London, killing and injuring thousands of people.
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Airships carrying aircraftIn war, airships proved to be too large, too slow and too flammable, making them relatively easy for fighter aircraft to shoot down.
In search of a defense against enemy airships, the British and the American militaries experimented with launching and recovering fighter aircraft in mid-air, from "skyhooks" slung beneath their own airships.
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First Atlantic crossing attemptAn American airship designed and flown by Walter Wellman and Melvin Vaniman, with a crew of four others, attempted to make the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1910.
The airship set out from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Oct. 15, 1910, but the engine failed 38 hours into the flight. The airship drifted for another 33 hours before the crew abandoned it and escaped onto a steamship near Bermuda.
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First Atlantic crossing by airshipThe first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by airship took place in 1919, just a few weeks after the first transatlantic airplane flight by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown.
The British airship R-34 left the United Kingdom on July 2, 1919, and arrived in the U.S. at Mineola, Long Island, New York, on July 6, after flying for 108 hours. A week later, the R-34 flew back to the U.K., completing the first return journey by air across the Atlantic.
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Dixmude airship disasterAs airships got larger, they proved difficult to handle in strong winds, and their large hydrogen-filled gasbags made them prone to catching fire.
One of the worst airships disasters occurred on Dec. 21, 1923, when the German Navy's airship Dixmude exploded in mid-air off the coast of Sicily, Italy, killing all 52 people on board.
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Airships of EmpireTwo British airships, the R-100 and R-101, were designed to fly long-distance air routes within the British Empire. In 1930, the R-100 made a demonstration flight from Bedfordshire in England to Montreal in Canada, covering 3,300 miles (5,300 kilometers) in 78 hours.
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Luxury linerThe R-101 was the largest flying craft in the world when it made its first flight in 1929. It also had the most spacious passenger quarters ever provided in an airship, with 50 passenger cabins, two promenade decks and a 5,500 square-foot passenger lounge spread over two decks.
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R-101 crashThe R-100 and R-101 were designed to compete with the great ocean liners of the day.
But on Oct. 5, 1930, after setting out on its maiden international voyage to Karachi, now in Pakistan, the R-101 lost altitude, crashed and caught fire in northern France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.
The disaster spelled the end of the British passenger airship project.
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Graf Zeppelin circumnavigationThe giant German airship Graf Zeppelin was designed to be the world's premier transatlantic passenger aircraft when it entered service in 1928.
Over nine years, the Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights and covered more than a million miles — including the first round-the-world flight. The airship set out from the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on Aug. 8, 1929, and stopped in Friedrichshafen in Germany, Tokyo in Japan and Los Angles, before returning to Lakehurst after just over 21 days.
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USS Akron and USS MaconTwo American military airships, the USS Akron and Macon, were among the largest flying aircraft ever built, at over 875 feet (239 meters) long.
They were filled with inert helium as a lifting gas, in the hopes of avoiding the destructive fires that had destroyed many hydrogen-filled airships. But the Akron crashed during a storm at sea off the coast of New Jersey on April 4, 1933, killing 73 people on board.
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The HindenburgThe Hindenburg was the flagship of the German Zeppelin fleet when it made its first flight in 1936.
It was designed to carry up to 72 passengers and up to 61 crew. In its first year of flight, the Hindenburg made 17 round trips across the Atlantic, from Germany to the United States. It was also used for propaganda flights, at the behest of Germany's Nazi government at that time.
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Luxury aloftA one-way fare across the Atlantic on the Hindenburg cost $400, a very high price at the time, and its passengers were often wealthy celebrities, leaders of industry and political figures. The passenger quarters included a dining room, a lounge and a writing room, with long windows running the length of two decks.
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Hindenberg disasterIn 1937, the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic for the last time, from Frankfurt in Germany to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. But on May 6, 1937, as the airship attempted to dock with a mooring mast at Lakehurst, the hydrogen in its gasbag burst into flames.
In the disaster, 35 people were killed and most of the 62 survivors were badly burned.
Debate continues about the cause of the Hindenburg disaster, but the Age of Airships had come to an end.
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Modern airships - AeroscraftSome companies today see a modern role for airships as cargo carriers, business commuter craft or personal aerial yachts.
The concept airship by California aviation company Worldwide Aeros Corp would be filled with non-flammable helium and would get most of its lift from the aerodynamic shape of its hull and the thrust from its electric motors.
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Airlander 10Another modern airship design, the British-built Airlander 10, made it first test flights in 2016. At 300 feet (92 m) long, the Airlander 10 is currently the world's largest flying craft. It is designed to carry up to 10 tons of cargo, or around 60 passengers.
But the prototype airship broke free of its moorings at Cardington in England in November 2017, triggering an automated system that deflated the helium-filled gasbag.