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An early French military dirigible, the Republique, leaving Moisson for Chalais-Mendon (1907)

An early French military dirigible, the Republique, leaving Moisson for Chalais-Mendon (1907).

A Caquot Type R observation balloon used during World War I by the United States on the Western Front

A Caquot Type R observation balloon used during World War I by the United States on the Western Front.

The front section of the Shenandoah after its crash in Sharon, Ohio, September 3, 1925. Photographed by R.S. Clements.

The ZR3 entering its hangar for the first time at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J., 1924. Photographed by R.S. Clements.

Akron, the world's largest dirigible, pays its first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1931.

The dirigible Los Angles flies over the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. From the Theodor Horydczak collection.

The dirigible ZR-3 (Los Angeles) at home at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, 1924.

An aerial view of the U.S. Navy dirigible ZRS-4 (Akron) superimposed above a battleship.

The British dirigible R-100 waiting for favorable weather for flight at its hangar in Yorkshire, England, 1928. The view shows the four stabilizing planes at the tail end of the airship

The Norge dirigible in England.

The Norge preparing for the second stage of its polar flight, in its hangar in Pulham, England, 1924.

The landing of the Navy dirigible R34 at Mineola, New York, 1919.

The Era of the Dirigible

The first rigid airship to fly was built in the 1890s. Its skeleton and outer cover were made of aluminum, and it was powered by a 12-horsepower (9-kilowatt) Daimler gas engine connected to three propellers. Designed by David Schwarz, a timber merchant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it lifted off successfully in a tethered test at Templehof near Berlin, Germany, on November 3, 1897. But its propeller belts broke, the pilot lost control, and the airship crashed.

The major designer and manufacturer of rigid airships in the early part of the twentieth century was the German company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, owned by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. Zeppelins were used as offensive weapons by Germany during World War I, dropping bombs on both Paris and London until the Allies became more effective at attacking them.

At the start of World War I, France used a fleet of semi-rigid airships for offensive military purposes. However, they were vulnerable to airplane attack, and the French discarded them from their offensive arsenal. They did use nonrigid airships effectively for aerial observation, coastal patrol, convoying, and locating enemy submarines and mines. These airships could hover over a location and stay aloft for longer periods of time than conventional aircraft. The British also used nonrigid airships to patrol their coasts and rigid airships for convoy protection against German submarines. The British expression "blimp" came into use during World War I as a slang term for nonrigid airships. Its origin is unknown.

The United States also used an observation balloon during World War I, the Caquot Type R, named for its designer, Lieutenant Albert Caquot of France. It measured 92 feet (28 meters) long and 32 feet (10 meters) in diameter, could stay aloft in winds as high as 70 miles per hour, (112 kilometers per hour) and held 32,200 cubic feet (912 cubic meters) of hydrogen. It was used on the Western Front in France during the war. Nearly a thousand Caquot balloons were manufactured in the United States during 1918-1919. The British also used this balloon in limited quantity during World War II.

Toward the end of World War I, the British began focusing on rigid airships and built the R34 and R38. The R34 made the first transatlantic roundtrip flight in July 1919, flying from East Fortune, Scotland, to Newfoundland, Canada, back to Mineola, New York, and returning to Pulham, England. It flew about 7,000 miles (11,200 kilometers) in 183 hours and 15 minutes. In January 1921, it was wrecked while landing at Howden, England. The R-38, built about the same time and some 25 percent larger than the R34, was also wrecked that year when its frame snapped and the hydrogen gas ignited. Forty-four of the 49 crewmembers perished. It was the worst aerial disaster to date.

After the end of the war, the U.S. Navy purchased the Italian-made semi-rigid Roma, which held more than one million cubic feet (28,317 cubic meters) of hydrogen. On February 21, 1922, the airship crashed and burned, killing 34 airmen. Following this disaster, the United States stopped using hydrogen and switched to using the safer, but more expensive, helium.

In 1923, the Navy built the ZR1 Shenandoah, the first rigid and helium airship constructed in the United States. It made a transcontinental flight in October 1924, covering more than 9,000 miles (14,484 kilometers) in 19 days. On September 3, 1925, during a publicity tour, it broke up during a violent storm over Ohio. Although it did not burn, 14 of the 43 crewmen were killed.

After World War I, the Germans were forbidden to build dirigibles. However, Hugo Eckener, owner of the Zeppelin company after Count Zeppelin's death, convinced the U.S. government to allow it to build a zeppelin for use by the U.S. military. Eckener delivered the ZR3 (LZ-127) to the United States in 1924 as partial war reparations. This airship, renamed the Los Angeles, could accommodate 30 passengers, with sleeping facilities similar to those on a Pullman railroad car. The Los Angeles made some 250 flights, including trips to Puerto Rico and Panama.

Airships were also used for exploration. On May 12,1926, the Italian airship Norge, a semirigid craft of about 650,000-cubic-foot (18,406-cubic-meter) capacity, flew from Spitsbergen, Norway, over the North Pole and on to Teller, Alaska. Piloted by Umberto Nobile, the Norge just missed being the first aircraft to reach the North Pole—being outdone by Richard Byrd who had reached the Pole on May 9, in a Fokker airplane.

Nobile made another polar flight in May 1928 in a similar ship, the Italia. But, after passing over the North Pole, the ship crashed into an ice floe. Nobile and nine of the crewmembers were thrown from the ship. The ship itself disappeared into the fog with the remaining crewmembers aboard and was never seen again. Nobile was picked up by rescuers in June, but the five surviving members of the crew who had remained on the floe, as well as two of the three men who had tried to walk to land, were not rescued until July 12.

In 1924, Christopher Birdwood Thompson, the British Air Minister, arranged for the construction of two rigid airships—the R100 and the R101—which would be the largest airships ever built. The R101 made its first flight on October 14, 1929. After its first few flights, engineers realized that it did not have as much disposable lift as originally anticipated. It was rebuilt so that it could hold additional gas. It was the largest manufactured object ever to fly and had dining, sleeping, and recreational accommodations for 100 persons. The R101 crashed and burned near Beauvais, France, on October 4, 1930. Of the 54 passengers on board, 48 died.

The R100 first flew on December 16, 1929. It made a transatlantic round trip to Montreal, Canada, in August 1930, but after the crash of the R101, it was scrapped. The British government canceled all further plans to build airships. 

In 1924, Germany granted the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company patent rights to build zeppelins in the United States. Goodyear built two ships for the U.S. Navy, the Akron and the Macon. Similar in size and structure, they were unique in that they were able to hold five airplanes that could be launched and retrieved while the airships were in flight. The Akron first flew on September 23, 1931, but was lost in a storm over the Atlantic Ocean on April 4, 1933. The Macon first flew on April 21, 1933, and crashed in the Pacific Ocean on February 12, 1935. The United States also abandoned building rigid airships.

--Judy Rumerman


Ambers, Henry. J. The Dirigible and the Future, rev. ed. Massapequa Park, N.Y.: 1981.

Archbold, Rick, Marschall, Ken (il.). Hindenberg – An Illustrated History. N.Y.: Warner Books, 1994.

Botting, Douglas. The Giant Airships. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1980.

Crouch, Tom D. The Eagle Aloft, Two Centuries of the Balloon in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Dwiggins, Don. The Complete Book of Airships: Dirigibles, Blimps and Hot Air Balloons. Blue Ridge Summit, Penn.: Tab Books, 1980.

Payne, Lee. Lighter Than Air, an Illustrated History of the Airship. N.Y.: Orion Books, 1991.

Toland, John. The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1972.

On-Line References:

"Caquot Type R Observation Balloon." U.S. Air Force Museum. http://wpafb.af.mil/museum/early_years/ey5a.htm.

Airship Image Library. http://www.airship-image-library.com

Airship Heritage Trust. http://www.AHT.ndirect.co.uk/

The Zeppelin Museum. http://www.zeppelin-museum.de/

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.

National Council   for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps to acquire, process, and report information.