A world where airships rule the skies and airplanes were merely a footnote to history — is such a thing possible? Could it really have happened if WW-I had not provided a forcing ground for the development of heavier-than-air flight? Even in our world, airships were the first powered aircraft, a decade before the Wright brothers. Airships flew the first passenger service, the first strategic bombing missions, the first regular commercial flights across the Atlantic, and until WW-II, were unmatched in endurance, range, and cargo capacity. Some of their accomplishments were amazing. The German zeppelin LZ-59 flew more than 4000 miles to Africa and back with 15 tons of cargo… in 1917! In 1926, Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile flew across the North Pole in the Italian airship Norge. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin became the first commercial aircraft to fly around the world. In the 1930s, the US Navy operated two flying aircraft carriers, the Akron and the Macon, each with its own air wing of Curtis F9C-2 ‘Sparrowhawk’ fighters. And the German airship company, DELAG, operated from 1909 until 1937 — almost three decades — flying millions of passenger miles without a single fatality.
Then, with the crash of the Hindenberg on 6 May 1937, it all came to an end. Why?
Some people think airships were doomed to failure because… well… all that hydrogen. But those same people think nothing of climbing aboard an airliner loaded with a hundred tons of highly flamable jet fuel. Others suggest that airships were too slow or expensive, but the price of a modern Zeppelin NT would not be unreasonable for a prototype of a helicopter with the same passenger load.
So what were the problems with airships? One was operations. The Germans routinely assembled up to 200 ground crew to ‘walk’ a ship to and from its mooring. Imagine what modern air travel would be like if airlines had to line up 200 men to drag each jet to and from the gate. And imagine what ticket prices would be like if it took 60 crew members to provide service to 70 passengers. Another was the primitive materials of the day, which left airships so fragile that they sometimes broke up in flight (though this didn’t always lead to a crash, because the ‘wreckage’ could remain aloft). A final problem may have been that manufacturers regarded these vessels as ’ships’, designing and building each one on an individual basis, without any of the immense savings that might have been realized from mass production.
None of these problems seems insurmountable. By the mid-30s, the US Navy had developed mechanized ground-handling equipment that reduced the need for labor. Materials and design were improving, and might have continued to improve if ships had been built in greater numbers. And mass production was most certainly a possibility, for the Germans established crude production lines for their military zeppelins in WW-I. But ‘what might have been’ is not what was, so now the giant airships live on only in memory, aging photographs, and in tales such as this one.