Airships: From Blimps to Zeppelins

The Graf Zeppelin. (Photo by Alexander Cohrs via Wikimedia Commons)
The Graf Zeppelin. (Photo by Alexander Cohrs via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1929, the Graf Zeppelin began its round-the-world flight.

Here are some things you may not have known about Zeppelins, blimps and other types of airships.

Airships, also known as dirigibles, are aircraft that are lighter than air, or almost lighter than air, and can navigate under their own power. The navigation part is what separates airship from hot-air balloons, which can only control their altitude, not their direction. The word dirigible has its origins in the latin word dirigere, which means “to direct.”

In 1785, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Blanchard attached birdlike flapping wings and a tail to a balloon to cross the English Channel. 1852 saw the first steam-engine powered flight.

By the end of the 19th century, German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin began building what would become known as the LZ1. Zeppelin’s airships had rigid frameworks of triangular girders and multiple gas cells for hydrogen. Hydrogen was used to provide lift as it is lighter than air. The LZ1 flew three times before being scrapped. One problem with LZ1 was its use of lead weights to control the pitch of the craft. In 1906, LZ2 remedied that by introducing the use of elevators to control pitch.

In World War I, the Germans, French and Italians used airships as scouts and tactical bombers. However because of their size and relatively slow speed, they proved too vulnerable for most combat missions.

In 1915, the British began using small blimps to scout for submarines and mines off the coast.

A blimp is a non-rigid airship. Its shape is formed by the pressure of the lifting gas inside the skin of the craft, called an envelope.

In 1923, the United States began building the USS Shenandoah, which was built in Lakehurst, New Jersey   The Shenandoah was the first airship inflated with non-flammable helium, rather that hydrogen, which was commonly used. At the time, helium was so scarce that it took most of the world’s supply to inflate the Shenandoah. The German Zeppelin company built the USS Los Angeles for the United States as part of reparations for World War I. The contract helped keep the company in business. However, the supply of helium was so scarce that the Shenandoah and Los Angeles alternated service time and repair time.

In 1928, the Graf Zeppelin entered operation, named after Count Zeppelin, graf being the German word for count . It was the first commercial transatlantic passenger service. It had a crew of 26 men and could carry 24 passengers. The flight deck and passenger cabins were located in a single gondola in the front third of the ship. The crew’s quarters were located inside the hull of the ship and were reached by a catwalk. It had a galley with an electric oven and two hot plates for cooking. The cabin was not heated.

One thing to remember about the rigid airships was that the skin on the outside was for aerodynamics, not to hold in the lifting gas. In the Graf Zeppelin, the gas was contained in 16 smaller gas cells contained inside the hull.

In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin began its round-the-world trip at Lakehurst, New Jersey, flying east to Germany, onto Japan and Los Angeles, before returning to Lakehurst a little more than 21 days later. In 1931, the Empire State building was completed with an airship mast at its top, however drafts caused by the building made it too dangerous to land a zeppelin there.

In 1936, the Graf Zeppelin and its successor, the Hindenburg, were pressed into service by the Nazi government to deliver propaganda materials following the invasion of the Rhineland.

One year later, the Hindenburg would burst into flames when landing in Lakehurst, effectively ending any hope of commercial hydrogen airship travel.

To hear more about the Hindenburg disaster, visit and search for “Hindenburg.”

During World War II, 154 airships were built by the Goodyear Company for the United States. They were used primarily to escort ships near the coastline. During the war, only one ship escorted by a blimp was sunk by enemy fire.

Goodyear began building blimps in 1918. The company’s blimps would become synonymous with airships later in the 20th century.

The Goodyear company currently has three airships in its U.S. fleet. Although the company calls them all blimps, only one of them is truly a blimp. The other two are semi-rigid airships built by the Zeppelin company. The final true Goodyear blimp will be retired in 2017 and replace with another Zeppelin. Goodyear plans to continue calling their airships blimps.

Our question: What was the first sports event at which a Goodyear blimp provided aerial coverage?


Today is unofficially National Zucchini Day, International Cat Day and National Frozen Custard Day.

It’s the birthday of actress and swimmer Esther Williams, who was born in 1921; actor Dustin Hoffman, who is 79; and tennis player Roger Federer, who turns 35.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1994, the top song in the U.S. was “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb.

The No. 1 movie was “Clear and Present Danger,” while the novel “The Gift” by Danielle Steel topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

What was the title of the first Led Zeppelin album that didn’t feature the band’s name?



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