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Airships: Part 3 - Civilian Airships

By Andy Cooke


After my introduction to airships in alternate history and my article on the roles of military airships if history had unfurled differently, the obvious next piece is on civilian airships.


At which point, we will have to address the Hindenburg issue. The crash of the LZ129 Hindenburg on May 6 1937, captured on newsreel and broadcast around the world, was the single event that most destroyed the dream of airships in OTL.


I'm not going to address ways of avoiding the event as a PoD (potential PoDs will come in a future article), but I will address whether or not the crash of the Hindenburg means that airships shouldn't be used for commercial passengers, at least not during the mid-twentieth century onwards. After all - if airships were inherently too dangerous to use, this would have resulted in either a casual acceptance of fatal risk that is hard to imagine, or airships falling out of use in time, anyway.


But first, the potential roles of civilian airships. They fall into two main areas: being used because they are carrying things, and being used because of where they are. Transport and Location.


ROLES - TRANSPORT


How much is carried? How far can it go? How quickly can it get there? How much does it cost? How flexible is it? What other benefits are there?


Those are the key questions for any kind of transport, and airships, sadly, run into issues on the balancing of speed, payload quantity, and cost. It's far cheaper (albeit slower) to use land transport. You can get it there far quicker by heavier-than-air aircraft. Airships can fall between two stools on cost and speed - too slow compared to aeroplanes, or too expensive compared to land travel. You're not going to speed up a Zeppelin to airliner speeds (and if you're pausing to visualise a near-supersonic airship, you're not alone), so you're either going to have to make airships very cheap indeed, or win out on the other parameters. Bear these in mind as we go through the roles.


The first role anyone thinks about is passenger transport. And, more specifically, luxury passenger transport. We're back to the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin - and why not? There's certainly a niche in the passenger business between rapid air travel (but without much room per person) and more lengthy ocean travel (with a lot more room per person) - cruising across the Atlantic in two days, lower than airliners and able to watch icebergs and whales from a panoramic window, sat in effectively a luxury dining room while sipping wine. Cost and speed can pale away compared to the experience and luxury.

Starboard Promenade aboard LZ-129 Hindenburg, next to the Lounge. (Airships.net collection)

However, outside of certain very specific scenarios, it's only that luxury transport that airships are suited for. Cramming people in for multi-day travel into economy-style seats is unlikely...


(Pauses to think of Bill Bryson's description of economy-class travel on the 3-day Sydney-to-Perth train. Also considers the economy-class seats on the aircraft from London to Sydney)


... Okay, I said unlikely. Not impossible. A skilled author should be able to justify it. Especially when you consider the potential flexibility - an airship can go deep inland (unlike ships) and can go where roads and railways are not. They can even go to places that lack anything like a runway. You can see roles for rescue airlifts of people, as well as transport in very undeveloped areas (Helicopters would be a competitor, but airships can scale up far easier, and could have greater range).


Image by Aeroscraft

The other transport role is on freight. Those key questions leap up here as well, and you can't dodge them with luxury experiences. Few people will pay for their cargo to be conveyed in excessive comfort. So either you win out on cost, or you use another key benefit on flexibility. There are three that leap to mind:

  • Go anywhere (no need for infrastructure). However, there has to be some sort of infrastructure at your destination, else why are you taking something there in the first place (initial set-up of infrastructure?)

  • Transport of large, bulky, or awkwardly shaped items. These can be underslung, and potentially better than a helicopter can do.

  • Environmental considerations. You can transport things far more quietly and with lower emissions than any other air transport method. You should be able to come up with plenty of scenarios where loud and dirtier transport is unacceptable, especially in locations of scientific interest.

Airship Norge, first aircraft to reach the North Pole (1926), picture from airships.net

ROLES - LOCATION


The above leads on easily to incidences of scientific research, especially in the high levels of the atmosphere (It is recommended that sealed cabins be invented prior to trying this...). Scientific research airships, though, remain a fairly small market sector.


A better role would be for airships to act as quasi-satellites. Able to move into position and hold position (in varying wind conditions) for considerable time. Available well before space launch technology existed, and considerably cheaper. Roles such as weather satellites, communication relays (including television relays), overhead photography, surveillance, and surveying (mineral surveying, sea surveying, tracking migrations at sea and on land, and so forth). A simple airship platform that can be used for multiple roles such as these could have a real niche.


In fact, the key consideration on terms of staying in place could be the human factor. Air-to-air refuelling of airships could, theoretically, have been easier to achieve than for aeroplanes (imagine being in the meeting that first suggested air-to-air refuelling). It's even possible to imagine smaller airships being able to "dock" with larger ones high in the air.


In an ATL where airships are used, then, the roles of these airships will govern how common they are and where they are encountered. Most feasible roles, however, tend to being quite niche, so it's unlikely that airships will be too plentiful (This won't preclude them being encountered or being well known - there were only a handful of Concordes, usually flying one very specific route, and they were quite well-known).


SAFETY AND RELIABILITY


While military airships can sail closer to the line in respect of safety and reliability, civilian airships (especially passenger transports) have very little room to get this wrong. The end of airships in OTL did not come about due to economic arguments, but down to perception of public safety, underlined by the Hindenburg disaster.


Which killed 36 people out of 98 on board. Earlier this month, 41 people lost their lives on a single Aeroflot flight, which caught fire on landing, with 41 out of 78 passengers and crew failing to make it out alive.


Despite my comment at the start of this article, we do accept these accidents as routine. Yes, we strive to minimise their chances, and air travel has become hugely safer over the past century or so. To the level where the death rate from air crashes is dwarfed by the death rate on our roads. We accept risk as against perception of risk, and the Hindenburg - recorded on camera, broadcast live, occurring very visibly and during the daytime - provided a massive perception issue.


Is it just perception? Well, that depends on how airship aviation evolves in your timeline. If, like aeroplane aviation, it systematically improves as design, testing, and processes to use them improve - as we understand more and more what can go wrong and work towards reducing or eliminating single points of failure leading to catastrophic failure - then, yes. Actual safety can be at least comparable to aeroplanes.


Even when using hydrogen as a lifting gas.


This seems counter-intuitive. We have it embedded into us that the Hindenburg disaster can be blamed on stupidly using hydrogen rather than helium. And yes, had it been a helium design, it wouldn't have burst into flames like that. It couldn't.

(Leave aside the issue that it probably couldn't have economically been used to travel across the Atlantic any more).


But we routinely use large-scale public transport which uses gasoline and kerosene. More passengers die as a result of burning aircraft (both due to burns and smoke inhalation) than die as a result of impact. We still use kerosene and gasoline - we just add more and more safety features and processes. In addition, hydrogen tends to burn upwards, away from passengers. Fighter pilots in World War One could testify to just how hard it was to make a Zeppelin actually burn. Safety procedures and standards requiring minimisation of sparks, separation of cells, use of non-flammable materials, avoidance of electrical storm areas and the like - they would be as routine in an airships ATL as such standards are for aircraft in OTL.


Next week: Onboard the airship - navigation, weather considerations, and the feel of the air.


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