September 30, 2004
How to build a Zeppelin

Once again, short on time, enough so that I regret to report that his entry shall undoubtedly suffer. In the machine migration I appear to have left some nifty Word macros behind that allowed me to do a certain amount of basic HTML in that app without having to resort to cleaning up the beast’s unruly, overfeatured HTML. So I’ll take a crack at using the new-ish version of ecto, which in the past has had some uncomfortable interactions with my (certainly crufted-up) server-side perl. Well, it’s still early days yet, a bit of trial and error, which happily brings us to the subject of today’s Blimp Week II installment.

A word about vocabulary, here: while this series is collectively referred to as Blimp Week, in fact I hope to write only about rigid airships this week. Rigid airships are known collectively as dirigibles, and the specific dirigibles designed by the airship company founded by Ferdinand von Zeppelin and associated engineers are known as Zeppelins. Today, a new company with the same name (almost) builds and flies the modern airships called Zeppelin NT. As Viv pointed out in a comment yesterday, you can purchase one, if you like.

So how does one build an airship? Well, in January I highlighted the card model of the never-built Vickers Transoceanic Airship from the terrific Currell’s Card Models. He also offers the British R-101 airship and more, but we’ve covered all of this already. For these airships, a true ruler, a sharp blade, keen eyes, and a steady hand will get you far. Elmer’s glue will close the gap. Of course, cardmodeling leaves something to be desired in the didactics, since the paper itself provides the rigidity for the models. (More on the ill-starred British aviation programme may be taken in at the Airship Heritage Trust or, for Francophones, Les dirigeables R-100 et R-101.)

I’m sorry to keep pointing out prior art, but the next links due for perusal were covered here in July. Dannysoar, (an amazing storehouse of aviation gimcrackery) provides the basic info on some antique stick-and-tissue model dirigibles at Zepps, while Building Airships and Flying-Machines comes to us from the good offices of one Glenn Curtiss, noted aviation pioneer. Lucky for us, we can fact check his ass with the slightly more modern Details of Modern Airships, 1927.

For a more hands-on approach, the preferred methodology is the rustlin’ up of historical photos and obtaining plan drawings of the ship you are interested in building. The good news is that there are many places to view images of the historical ships on the web. The bad news is that there are very few plan drawings available online. Here are two.

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(Apologies for the too-small thumbs. ecto didn’t have an obvious image-upload options dialog.) The image above is from this page of construction views of the USS Akron; it’s a part of this U. S. Navy collection of vintage aviation equipment photos. The image below is from a forgotten source, but is clearly a comparison drawing showing the Shenandoah and a proposed but not-yet-built airship.

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Where do you get plans? Well, many libraries list collections of lighter-than-air related material online. Interesting collections of ephemera surface for auction, as well. But the only places I found that offer access to a wide range of plans are the somewhat related ABAC (“THE ASSOCIATION OF BALLOON AND AIRSHIP CONSTRUCTORS”) and one “G. Wright - Airships.” The ABAC apparently has a collectively-maintained library that you pay dues to get access to, and Mr. Wright sells plans - lots of plans - of any kind of airship, as well as a wide range of LTA-related stuff. The ABAC notes that issue 27-1 of their newsletter is available online, in PDF. The page does not mention that issues 22-1 and 27-2 are also available. 27-1 has a highly detailed overview of “Great Britain’s 23X Class Rigid Airships,” by Kent O’Grady, which appeals to me greatly but which may also be too technical for me to properly absorb. I look forward to it.

Given that you’ve plan in hand, however obtained, what’s next? In general, the accepted practice would appear to be one of obtaining large amounts of balsa wood, and pinning the wood to the plan to be shaped and cut. A large number of intermediate steps then take place, which we shall leave as an exercise for the reader. The finished product may not, in all cases, be quite as remarkable as this World War 1 combat zeppelin, the L31 (see the Dawn of Aces section in How to Fly a Zeppelin).

These model pages, by the way, come from the The Zeppelin Library, a venerable collection of zeppelinalia. The highlight of the model pages, though, is clearly the work seen here, by Ed Gailliot. Featured on the page are three model sets, so detailed and of such scale that they clearly deserve a home in a museum display. The first of the models depicts the crew quarters and aircraft hangar bays of the USS Macon and USS Akron, complete with aircraft and tiny beds, and appear to contain elaborate moving parts. The scale 1/32, but is not visually given. In a picture of Ed standing next to his handiwork the bay model appears to be about four feet wide, making it something like five or six feet long.

The next model is of the great airship hangar in Akron, Ohio, home of Goodyear, and featured on the logo below. The model appears to be several feet long and includes the Akron, a mooring mast, and a tiny Navy patrol blimp, of the kind we think of when the Goodyear Blimp comes to mind.

Finally, and in some ways most fascinating, are the images of Ed’s quite large model of the Hindenburg’s passenger decks, including both the crew quarters and the staterooms, smoking area, dining room, and so forth. More detailed images of all of these models would be a great and wonderful thing, as would a chance to hear Ed discussing his creation process. Here’s hoping that they are safely stored away and destined for a warm, well-budgeted museum display somewhere.

This concludes the modeling portion of our flight this week.

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mike whybark. 1052 words. Posted at September 30, 2004 07:36 AM
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