Lighter than Air

Come with Mr. Trashcan as he takes you, through the miracle of reincarnation, back to 1930 or so, where we will go for a ride in a Zeppelin.  Mr. trashcan has removed from that last sentence the name of the most advanced passenger airship ever built, the Hindenburg.  It is all Mr. Trashcan can do to keep you from opting out on this voyage, with a variety of lame excuses.  Which is a shame.

People don’t know what they’re missing.  Flying today has become a squalid activity.  As something you have to do, but could definitely live without, it has to rank right up there with defecation.  But why?  People dream about flying, they admire the birds, attach video cameras to kites, zoom around using Google Earth; it’s the missing ability, we feel cheated, handicapped.  Isn’t it a shame that flying should have come to mean being shipped someplace like a UPS package?
But picture something different, something that could have been, something more like a voyage of wonder and discovery, a social occasion; something in between the efficiency of UPS and those overstuffed cruises where you eat all day.  Picture a rigid airship:  big enough for a restaurant and bar, a promenade deck and a reading room.  With your own cabin.  A lounge with an aluminum piano.  Room to walk around.   About 150 passengers.
The first difference you’ll notice, once you’ve settled in, is that airships fly very low, less than 5000 feet.  This is about where you fly in your dreams, and it gives you the real feeling of flying; because, you see, this feeling depends on having the familiar world of the surface as a reference.   When you fly up in the stratosphere, you might as well be in interstellar space, and having been through interstellar space as a meteorite (long story) Mr. T can tell you it’s really boring.  Anyway, if you really want the full effect, the windows along the promenade deck can be opened; you can stick your head out into the wind!
The second difference you’ll notice is the serenity of a big airship.  That word had to be dusted off and charged up; it doesn’t get used any more.  There almost isn’t much serenity left any more.  Consider the difference;  a jet stays in the air only by virtue of its frantic forward motion.  It plunges and shudders with headlong forward speed, and even in the calmest air, a nervous quiver runs through it,  up through the seat, and into your butt, which is chained there for the duration.   A jet is only a visitor in the air, so long as its fuel holds out, and the wings stay on and the computers agree about what to do with the ailerons.
An airship, on the other hand, is at home in the clouds.  It has to be literally chained down long enough for you to board.  You can cut the engines if you like.  You could even chop off big pieces of the fuselage and control surfaces.   When the airship Akron broke up over Nebraska in 1935, seven crewmen rode to safety in the first 30 feet of the bow.
What better way to navigate the skies than in a ship that is naturally buoyant in the medium of air.    The engineering makes much more sense: you only need enough structure to keep the gasbags lined up, one behind the other, and to hang the various weights you want to lift.
And consider the crew.  Not to detract from the professionalism of airline pilots, but your airship has a real captain, with stripes on his sleeve.  He is standing on the bridge with a cup of coffee, issuing quiet orders to the helmsman and the elevator man, planning his strategy, looking for a way through the weather front ahead.  The whole thing is as much nicer for them as it is for you.
Mr. Trashcan could go on and on with this, but he is very sensitive to the eye-rolling of listeners.  OK.  So Mr. Trashcan is ignoring a lot of things.  How did all these people get the time to travel this way: its going to take them a couple of days to get where they’re going.   Who’s paying for it?  Etc.
Back to earth.  “We’ll be landing in Lakehurst in an hour, sir.”
The U.S. Navy did as much as anyone to kill the prospects of the airship.  After decades of safe airship operation (with hydrogen) in Germany, the Navy managed to wreck all but one of its airships over something like a ten year period.  The difference was that the German captains knew to avoid rough weather at all costs.  In the American Navy, however, there was a macho culture, stemming from years of experience at sea, of damn the storms! Fly right through ’em!   Combined with a kind of engineering hubris that caused Goodyear to ignore design principles that the Germans had compiled through hard trial and error, the results were disastrous.  Airships have a structure that is appropriate to their normal envelope, but it is impractical to make them strong enough to withstand the turbulence of a storm.  With modern materials like carbon fiber we could make them very much stronger, but they will never be suited to violent weather.
The relative delicacy of the big airships means they have to be protected when they aren’t flying, and this requires a very large hangar.  This is a cost.
Some of the other overhead associated with airships might be made to go away, with modern technology; the large ground crews, the large crews needed on the vessels themselves, but these things still are not money-makers.  And that, basically, is why we don’t have them.  That’s the real shame of free enterprise,  it tends not to produce things that aren’t real moneymakers, no matter how beautiful they are.
Every few years some giant cargo lifter is announced, usually something more complicated than just a straight airship, but Mr. Trashcan doesn’t get excited about these.  He’s waiting for the day when you can sit down at a first class dinner, on china plates with the name of the airship on them,  then maybe take what’s left of your wine out to the promenade deck, to watch the lights coming on in the houses of ordinary people, far below, and to hear their dogs barking at the great black shape passing over in the fading light.

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