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Airships: Potential PoDs 5 - The Eccentric Tycoon

By Andy Cooke

The R101 had failed disastrously, pushing the British Empire out of airship development. Hindenburg ended the chances that Germany would continue, and wiped out the nascent chances of investment from Americans as well.

Aeroplanes started getting longer and longer ranges. The age of the airship was over.

Investment in airships now would be more an act of faith than anything else. Yes, there might be a niche for them, but public opinion had swung against them, countries were still recovering from the Great Depression and loathe to risk speculative ventures, so how could airships come back?

In the last two PoDs (R101 and Hindenburg), we primarily considered State Actors: The British Empire and Nazi Germany respectively. But the early 20th Century also had a considerable number of rich individuals (maybe not quite as noticeable as the tycoons of the 19th century), but if one such had caught the airship bug, it is possible they could have either been more popular at the time of the PoDs above, or even stubbornly remained plying the air lanes.

My standard format for these articles of "What happened? Why did that disrupt airship use? What could have happened instead?" is rather silly for this one. The answers to the first two are simply, "Well, nothing," and "There was none to disrupt; that's the point", so we'll move straight on to point three.

What could have happened instead?

I think that even with an eccentric tycoon taking interest, there would need to be an external factor to turbo-charge demand. And yes, I'm going to get pretty speculative. Then again, in articles where you want discussion, that's not a bad thing.

So - the 1930s and 1940s, eccentric tycoons, aeronautical interest. Hands up everyone who immediately thought of Howard Hughes?

Me too.

Howard Hughes was born in 1905 and the only son of a rich inventor and businessman, inheriting a major company and a lot of money at the age of 19, after his parents died comparatively young. With interests in manufacturing, real estate, entertainment, and aviation, Hughes fit the bill as a tycoon, certainly. A lifelong love of aviation was added, and everything the points towards eccentricity would take a dedicated article in itself.

Hughes formed the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, so even had his own aerosystems manufacturer. The key PoD here is for Hughes to become as fascinated by airships as he was by aeroplanes. In OTL, seeking to build a long-range transport aircraft to avoid U-boats, he designed the famous Spruce Goose, an aeroplane with the largest wingspan ever, until the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft flew in 2011.

It could not be described as a success, unfortunately. Designed to carry troops and/or equipment across the Atlantic, out of the reach of U-boats, it could carry more than 60 tonnes across the ocean. In theory.

It was not completed until the war was over, when the rather diminished U-boat threat led the US Government to decide they no longer needed it. Neither did it ever make a full-scale flight.

So - in this "What If...", Hughes earlier turned his thoughts to lighter-than-air flight. If, say, the successful flights of the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg caught his eye and someone said something challenging about how Americans could never match the Germans in this field...

Thanks to the way lift scales with volume and the mass needed for a hull by area, the larger you go, the more useful lift an airship can have. The British Airship Project had already started planning the R102 and R103 when their programme was halted: airships with volumes of up to 9,500,000 cubic feet (compared to 5,000,000 for the R101 and 7,000,000 for the Hindenburg. Even with the lesser lift capacity of helium compared to hydrogen (which is a smaller penalty than you would assume), this would provide for an airship easily capable of crossing the Atlantic with well upwards of 60 or 70 tonnes useful payload capacity.

We're in the early thirties, as Hughes is setting up the Hughes Aircraft Company. The R101 crashed in 1930. The Graf Zeppelin has circled the world, with passengers. The Germans are building the Hindenburg. Now, though, instead of considering designing and building a speculative bomber (which the US Government would not pick up, anyway), the Hughes Aircraft Company are building the Hercules transport airship (Yes, the same name as the Spruce Goose's official name. Why not?)

The flaming crash of the Hindenburg, if it happens before his own huge airship is launched, is seen by Hughes as an opportunity. Publicising that they would never use flammable hydrogen, and that good, reliable, American engineering used only safe helium, maybe it would give an opportunity for civilian transport? The first test flights would occur by 1938 or 1939... and World War II breaks out.

The Battle of the Atlantic

There were two key "Battles" in WWII for the defence of the United Kingdom. The Battle of Britain is well known. The Battle of the Atlantic was, though, arguably the greater real threat.

The lengthy Battle of the Atlantic was fought largely out of sight of the populace. The RAF's Coastal Command, which would eventually prove critical in ending the Battle, began the war with an undersized establishment of obsolescent aircraft, no effective anti-submarine weaponry, very limited ability to detect submarines and having apparently forgotten, in common with the rest of the military, the lessons learned from the similar situation in World War One. The Battle began in September 1939, and in May 1940, with the U-boats’ gaining direct access to the Atlantic from the Bay of Biscay, the U-boat offensive reached a peak (called “The first Happy Time” by German U-boat crews). It was stemmed between June 1941 and January 1942, before peaking again. By the middle of 1943, however, the British forces (The Royal Navy working closely with Coastal Command) had effectively gained lasting dominance.

That took nearly four years, though, with more than 3,500 merchant ships sunk, 175 warships lost by the Allies, and more than 70,000 sailors (split evenly between merchant seamen and naval sailors) drowned in the cold Atlantic waters. The naval blockade was never completely solid, but had a very real effect on limiting supplies to Britain, genuinely endangering the war effort more than virtually any other area of the war.

By late 1940/early 1941, the Allies had rediscovered the lesson of WWI: forming convoys and shadowing them with aircraft deterred U-boats, who would not be able to attack for fear of betraying their position - even without useful weapons, the aircraft could co-ordinate attacks from escorting naval vessels. And the aircraft were quickly obtaining useful weapons, in any case. There was one key drawback: a lack of long-enough-range aircraft to close the Atlantic Gap. Until the arrival of Very-Long-Range (VLR) B-24 Liberators from the USA in spring of 1943, there was always an area of the mid-Atlantic where convoys lacked air cover, and the U-boats could feast.

Enter the Airship

In WWI, small airships had already been used by the Royal Navy to counter U-boats. The Sea Scout blimps were rapidly constructed, often using existing aeroplane fuselages, and were very successful, but would have not had the range to cross the Atlantic - not by a long chalk.

If, however, an R103-scale airship already existed, it would be perfect for the job. Not demanded by other areas of military aviation (Coastal Command, a.k.k "Cinderella Command" almost always was left with the scraps from the table after Bomber Command took precedence) and out of range of any enemy fighters, the Hercules airship could easily patrol the Atlantic Gap, years before it was closed in OTL. The Battle of the Atlantic would have been all-but-won early on.

Further Hercules airships would have been able to provide direct trans-Atlantic goods and personnel convoys - well out of range of any U-boats in any case. Mass production would have been strongly indicated, an Atlantic airbridge created for faster and safer transit. Of course the Nazis would have attempted to attack it with aircraft, but range issues would have caused serious problems - airships could ply their way to western Scotland, making it very difficult for most fighters to reach them.

An Airship legacy

As long as the initial spark was there from an eccentric tycoon, the conditions could have been ripe for them to be re-adopted. After the war, you could even posit a case that airships would get associated with liberty and rescue. Why not? They'd also be a routine part of the sky scenery again. They might well run into economic niche issues again, but they'd be far more embedded than they ever got before the War.

There would also be a considerable number of "butterflies" caused by the Battle of the Atlantic being far less deadly and influential - not just the (many) individual lives spared. Just think through a handful of consequences from there, and this airships PoD has far further-reaching implications for how WWII unfolds, the importance (or lack of it) of different key actors and branches, and what happens next.

You don't need to choose Howard Hughes, of course. He just happens to be a fairly good fit for being the right person in the right place at the right time (there needs to be a handful of assumptions, most of which are, though, most definitely plausible); a knowledgeable historian of the early 20th Century could very easily come up with other candidates, I'm sure.

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Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP