Airship Dreams, Part 2: Even Bigger!

Link - article by Avi Abrams

"Go Big, or Go Extinct" applies not only to summer movie blockbusters

This summer blockbuster season we've already seen movies with giant robots, giant monsters, giant spaceships, giant egos and giant ridiculous cataclysms. There were a few giant things missing, however - among them (I figure) glorious, majestic airships, solemnly plying the skies or docking at giant skyscrapers. As a guy with deep steampunk and dieselpunk sensibilities I simply crave that visual "airship" kick, and will have to cast a vote for these nearly-obsolete beasts to grace the big screen of Hollywood once again.

Today we are going to see more airships - bigger, better and uncut. (Read the first part of this series here).

(top image: from 1966 German TV series "Raumpatrouille Orion"; other images via 1, 2)

Steampunk Dream, Clad in Aluminum: The Gleaming "Wild, Wild West" Airship

This beauty, designed by Charles Stanley (and his Aerial Navigation Company), was actually almost built in San Francisco in 1903, but like any thing "too good to be true" it was never finished. The "Stanley Aerial Navigation Company Aluminum Airship" - which by the way sounds great, almost like a name of the late 1960s psychedlic pop group - never took off the ground, and we can only imagine the glory of seeing it over San Francisco, if it did:

(art by Rod Flinn, via Brass Goggles)

These four excellent gentlemen (see the vintage tintype on the right) would certainly be delighted to be on-board of the "Whimsical Airship" model, shown on the left:

(images credit: Doc Rivets, Camera Obscura, BrassGoggles)

One of the loveliest steampunk concepts ever imagined is this airship "Victoria", seen in the light of day and drifting over the clouds in moonlight - truly a "Dreamliner"! (not the Boeing-787 "Dreamliner", but still...):

(images via Brass Goggles)

Wow, THIS what I call a colossal flying machine! This concept from 1850 could carry in very limited comfort all these crowds of people and was powered by a mysterious "ether-drive" (whatever this is):

(image via)

This is Frank Reade's electric flying ship "Eclipse" dates from 1892, first seen on the cover of the eponymous "Dime Novel" - and Tom Swift's equally bizarre airship:

(top image via)

Build them, and they will soar!

From dreams and concepts dating all the way back to Victorian England and wild, wild American West, we progress to the actual Age of Airships in the 1910s-1930s, when these giant airborne siblings of Titanic and other luxurious oversized sea liners (comparable to Titanic in size, if not in levels of luxury) took to the skies and ruled the intercontinental air travel.

But first, such fantastic machines had to be engineered and built - so by popular demand, here are more mind-blowingly complex pictures of Zeppelins under construction:
"Britain's R 101 airship under construction at the Royal Airship Works, Cardington":

(image credit: The National Archives, UK)

Note the gas tanks in this photo: some airships used helium rather than hydrogen, because hydrogen is highly flammable (and images of Hindenburg disaster forever stayed in public consciousness):

(image via)

A giant, 680ft-long airship "ZR-1" under construction in 1922-23 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey:

(image via Shorpy, click image to enlarge)

"The Shenandoah" is seen also under construction in Lakehurst in 1921:

(image via)

The following intensely detailed photographs were taken in 1930 during the construction of USS "Akron", and equally impressive USS "Macon" in 1933:

(images via)

Interestingly, all these zeppelins and blimps in the US were placed under the control of the US Navy, not the Air Force (before the World War Two) - truly making them "the ships of the air", sisters of the naval fleet's "ships of the line".

A Big Ship Needs a Big House

Something indescribably huge emerges out of the over-sized wooden hangar - certainly a sight to remember in Victorian times, and praise-worthy event even today (if you are lucky enough to witness the launch of a modern high-tech airship):

(the Clement-Bayard dirigible coming out of the wooden shed, France, 1908)

To give you an idea how enormous were the hangars for building these airships, here is a hangar for the "Hindenburg" in 1937:

(top image via)

Hangar One, at NASAs Moffett Field (still threatened with demolition) on the left, and the wooden Airdock 2 at Weeksville, North Carolina:

(the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey; image credit: Naval Historical Center, also 1, 2)

The view inside the Graf Zeppelin hangar in Frankfurt in the 1930s shows the puny, ant-like people preparing to board it (left), and on the right you have really a rare sight: the vew at one of the engines of dirigible "Hindenburg", as seen from the passenger car behind it:

(images via 1, 2)

Something else illustrates the immense scale of these original hangars: the Tropical Islands theme park and indoor beach was built right inside one of these old airship hangars in Germany! -

(image via)

"This giant hangar was built originally to house giant airship freight transporters. The original conception was big enough to house the Eiffel tower on its side, and it is the second largest internal space in the world. It now houses a giant tropical theme park"

Liners in the Air!

When the Age of Passenger Airships finally arrived, there was no shortage of mind-boggling sights: here, for example, is the whole crew of the USS Macon:

(USS MACON inside Hangar One, Sunnyvale/Mountainview, California, 1933 - The Moffett Field Historical Society, via)

How big was the USS Macon? Here is the direct size comparison with the Titanic:

(image credit: the Moffett Field Historical Society, via)

Liberty Magazine from 1929 included a lovely illustration of the airship hovering above the mountains: this is the legendary "Shenandoah" as it flies over the Rockies in her trip across the USA in 1924 - from Lakehurst to Tacoma, and back:

(left: illustration from Liberty Magazine, 1929 - right: The Illustrated London News, via)

Here is the classic image of the airship Commander on board of the USS "Shenandoah" during her cross-country trip in 1924: truly the "Right Stuff"! -

(images credit: Naval Historical Center)

After such impressive achievements, the "Shenandoah" airship was ready to retire, when the tragedy struck... In 1925 while flying over Ohio, the USS "Shenandoah" encountered violent atmospheric conditions and broke up in two halves due to stress. The dramatic loss of this great airship had a huge impact on public perception of safety of these lighter-than-air vessels, and this page gives a great account of what happened:

(images credit: Naval Historical Center)

"Powerful air currents buffeted her so severely that her crew was unable to maintain control. Rising rapidly above her pressure height, then falling and rising again, her hull structure was overstressed amidships, breaking the airship in two. Shenandoah's external control car and two engine cars fell free, carrying the dirigible's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Zachary Lansdowne, and several other men to their deaths. The stern section came down nearby, while Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Rosendahl and several men were able to fly the bow section to ground as a free balloon. In all, fourteen trained crewmen had been killed, and twenty-nine of those on board survived."

"Airships of the World Unite!" (under the Communist Airship Dream banner)

Some of the giant airship projects in Russia were equally impressive. Before the revolution, many airship concepts took to the skies - some designed by French engineers, for example, the above-mentioned the Clement-Bayard dirigible. However, some home-grown Russian airships were boosting the morale of Tzarist government and Russian prestige aboard. Check out this "Russia" dirigible designed by O. S. Kostovish in 1882 (another great airship that was abandoned in the latter stages of assembly):

(art by Rod Flinn, via Brass Goggles)

Once Communists came to power, airships (dirigibles and blimps) enjoyed quite a surge in government-sponsored development, plus these mighty vessels conveyed the romance of "building a New World" better than tanks and armored trains. Here is a painting of the early Soviet airship by Alexandre Labas, 1931 - full of glorious color and bright hopes for the future:

(image via)

From Russia with "Lighter-Than-Air" Love - look at this beautiful "Pravda" (The Truth) Dirigible! -

(images via)

The poster on the right says: "Let's Build the Soviet Dirigible!", joining with the OSOAVIAKHIM, Union of Societies of Assistance to Defence and Aviation-Chemical Construction (1930).

Here are some of the airship-themed poststamps issued in Russia (which got so popular with collectors that even got a special word for it: The Zeppelin Aerophilately):

(image via)

"The Soviet Union issued four stamps for use on mail from Leningrad and Moscow carried on the polar flight of the Graf Zeppelin in July 1931. The designs depict a polar bear watching the Graf Zeppelin flying over the Russian icebreaker Malygin." - info

Futuristic dream of giant airships carried on in Communist publications well into the 1960s: here is a 1962 Nuclear Airship concept from the "Smena" magazine:

(image credit: "Smena" Magazine, USSR 1962)

Vintage Airship Travel Posters, and other Art Deco & Modernism examples

We should probably dedicate a separate article to the glorious vintage airship travel industry. For now, just have a look at these posters:

(recent art by Paul Roman Martinez, via, made to resemble the original retro posters)

(image via)

"Goodyear visits Cambodia" (left image) and some Soviet plans on using airships for transportation:

(left image via)

Art Deco & Modernism movements were filled to the brim with airships, skyscrapers, caught-in-a-spotlight blimps, and more airships:

(right image: cover of the "Flight of the Silver Ship" by Hugh McAlister, 1930)

Good old toy industry also featured silver-plated and aluminum airships in many variations: here is a Graf Zeppelin on wheels, a rare vintage "Schylling" aluminum wind-up toy -

(images via 1, 2, 3)

By the way, right image above shows probably the coolest retro airship movie poster ever made, the Stenberg Brothers' 1920s poster for the "Comrade Dirigible" movie - via.

The following image, though, shows not a toy, but much better than a toy - a portable BAR, to store your hard liquor in (the "J.A. Henckels" Art Deco Traveling Bar, designed in Germany in 1928). Technically speaking, it is designed to resemble an airplane, but features a perfect airship "thick cigar" shape and Zeppelin-like rudders:

(images credit: Modernism Gallery)

And what about these blobs?

These are definitely not airships, though they might look like ones (especially after one partakes of that portable hard liquor J.A. Henckels bar, wink wink). This is the grain silos concept, designed by the German architect Frei Otto... might've been a mighty inspiring sight to grace the praries in 1959:

(image via)

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.


Check out the rest of our "AMAZING AIRPLANES" SERIES ->


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Big Build... Goodyear Blimp NT - Moving Forward


Anonymous jcf said...

Another failed all-metal airship:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The giant hangar converted to a waterpark isn't that old.
Around the turn of the Millenium there was a company that wanted to build large freight Zeppelins.
Well, it didn't work out and their assets (the largest one being that bigass hangar... largest freestanding hall of the world, IIRC) was sold off to become a theme park called Tropical Islands or something like that

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out the 1971 movie, Zeppelin.

Blogger Al Denelsbeck said...

Small correction to one of the image captions: the view of one of the Hindenburg's engines isn't from the passenger car behind it, but from the other engine on that side in front of it - you're looking over top of the engine itself, and the dark blur visible right at image center is likely a propeller blade. In other images of the airship, you can see the maintenance catwalk that leads to the engine.

So actually, an even cooler image ;-)

Anonymous Alfa158 said...

I believe the first image is of an atomic powered spaceship from a 1939 German science fiction film. Footage was recycled and redubbed in the 50's as a children's TV series called The Space Explorers and the ship was called Polaris II. I loved it when I saw it as a child.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The flammable gas is hydrogen NOT helium.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the Number 2 Airdock in Weeksville, NC, burned to the ground in the mid 1990s.


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