Airship / Book Review / Non Fiction / Technology

Airship: Design, Development and Disaster, by John Swinfield

For most, airships represent a tremendously appealing, glamorous, and perhaps even romantic technology that has completely failed. Once it was viewed as incredibly promising and interesting for a wide range of applications – for military purposes and for long-range transportation of goods and people. Then came the disasters of USS Akron (see the image of USS Akron over Manhattan below) in 1933 and the huge German Zeppelin LZ129 Hindenburg in 1937 and the rapid development of the airplane, and suddenly the idea of the airship was dead. «Born in hope and died in tragedy», as the author John Swinfield (p.245) so eloquently puts it.

Airship is a great book about the somewhat sad history of airships. The focus is on Britain’s experience, but there is much also about airships in America and Germany.

Airships grew out of balloons, and the history of the airship started with the history of balloons. And it is a long history, much longer than I thought. Did you know that Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a balloon equipped with flapping wings for propulsion and a bird-like tail for steering in 1875? I did not.

Anyway, it seems correct to say that airships were borne out of the desire to attach propulsion to balloons. The first flight with an airship took place in 1852 when Henri Giffard flew 17 miles in a steam-powered airship! Following this, the “Golden Age of Airships” began in July 1900, when the German Count von Zeppelin launched his first Luftschiff; the first in a series that would over time become the famous Zeppelins.

Airship documents and recounts the history of the airship mainly in England – a history that is rich, very complex, and interesting. The focus is on the unsuccessful British airship program during the 1920s that culminated in the designs of R100 and R101, and the lager R101 disaster which ended rigid airship experimentation in the UK. The author shows how grandiose ambitions, cost-cutting, and design and material compromises, along with politics, each played important roles in the failure and demise of a promising industry.

Airship is an interesting book that tells an important and quite intriguing story, but the focus is much narrower than the title and the dust jacket for the book indicate. It draws on original sources and interviews along with official documents, and is well illustrated and documented via footnotes with references. Overall, it is a book for readers especially interested in the British airship program. I especially liked the many descriptions of the main characters and personalities that drove the development of this exciting technology.