Book Review: Airship: Design, Development and Disaster

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster by John Swinfield is a study of lighter than air ships in Europe and the United States. Swinfield holds a Master of Arts in maritime history has been widely published in newspapers as a reporter before joining ITV and the BBC. 

Today the idea of lighter than ships, especially zeppelins, seem rather benign, if at all thought about beyond a great 70’s rock band. In World War I, zeppelins flew well above the ceilings of aircraft of the day. They were safe from enemy attack and could stay in the clouds hidden from view. With their engines off the were completely silent until their bombs hit the ground. Although the zeppelin could not see through the clouds, it could lower a “cloud car” with a crew member 3,000 feet below the zeppelin to act as a spotter. Zeppelins were to cities what submarines were to shipping: pure terror. Britain, in turn, used its airships to spot submarines. 

A good portion of the book traces Britain’s attempt develop its own airship fleet for civilian use. Britain always ended up a step behind the Germans in the airship race. The Zeppelin company was almost destroyed as a result of the the Treaty of Versailles, but an American order helped save the company. In Britain, it was a struggle to develop a peace time airship program. The government did not want and could not afford to subsidize the industry. Two competing firms vied for position and promises included carrying mail and passengers to the Americas and to India. The companies projected profits. 

In America, it was the rise of the Goodyear company after the U.S. purchased airships from other countries. America used helium and converted ships it bought to helium. Countries experimented with carrying planes on the zeppelins envisioning a fleet of plane carrying zeppelins, much like an aircraft carrier in the sky. Other countries joined the airship race. Italy entered and built the Norge for Amundsen to fly to the North Pole. Germany resumed the zeppelin industry with airships flying to Brazil and the United States. It was the heyday for airships, until the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in a spectacular fireball. With the Hindenburg disaster, the airship industry also crashed. It was an end of a short era.

For a short time airships were a futuristic a terror in war and fast mode of transporting people and the mail in peace time. At over 700 feet in length, the size of an ocean liner, they were more than a bit impressive in the sky. Three times the length of a Boeing 747, twice the size of a Saturn 5 Rocket, or as long as Cleveland’s Terminal Tower is tall. To see something this size floating in the air would have been amazing. So large, it would block out the sun and cast a huge shadow when flying over an observer. Swinfield writes an interesting history of an nearly forgotten time and craft. The book is alive with competition, struggles, and some victories. A well written book with over thirty-five page of documentation and well illustrated. A very good read for aviation fans and students of the inter-war years.

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