Blimp Week II continues with this surefire crowd pleaser! What wild-eyed wannabe airshipman hasn’t dreamt of moseying through the air in a lighter-than-air leviathan? While a bit of searching did not yield a super-detailed, insanely accurate simulation of any specific lighter-than-air craft, there are two reasonably detailed flight sims that offer a good start. One, Dawn of Aces, is a largely-moribund massively-multiplayer flight sim that did not include a zeppelin in the most recent public beta, so I’ll be suggest a fairly old version of the game. The other, X-Plane, is a bonafide sim-genre phenomenon. It allows enthusiasts for the sim to design and develop their own aircraft, imaginary or otherwise. This means, that in theory, airship enthusiasts could develop accurate and detailed flying models of the older ships. In practice, the user-contributed models I have seen have tended to the fanciful.
A final word before we begin: flying these aircraft is very unlike flying a plane. They are quite slow. They take forever to turn, and stop even more slowly. Remember, just because your ship has the buoyancy of a child’s balloon does not mean it’s massless.
Download a game
Download either the terrific – and daunting – X-Plane flight sim or the creaky, but still pretty cool, Dawn of Aces II. X-Plane pretty much requires a fast computer of recent vintage – it’s also a HUGE download. DoA II will work well on most any computer, although Mac players will be disappointed to learn that the game is OS9-only and does not offer the lovely rendering and texture mapping seen in the PC screenshots. (There is an OSX/Wintel DoA III – but alas, development is stalled and there is no zep in the model set. It’s available on the same page as DoA II.)
If you have chosen X-Plane
Wait for your download to conclude, read through the documentation, and launch the application. When you move your cursor to the top of the screen, a menubar will appear. Select the “File” menu, then “Open Aircraft.” A dialog will open in which you can select a range of possible aircraft types. Pick “Airships.” and “Hindenburg.”
You’ll find yourself on the runway of a Southern California airport in a slowly listing giant of the air. Let’s skip takeoff and get right to the main act.
Activate the menubar, select “Location,” and then “Get me lost.” You’ll find yourself at about 10,000 feet, and will immediately enter a steep dive. In the center of your control panel is a little group of three controls, two with wheels and one with a sliding lever. The sliding lever is at the bottom of the control group. Push the flat knob on the lever to the top of its’ track. Immediately after, place your cursor over the lower end of the wheel control at the top of the control group (it’s to the right of the window labeled vertically “ELEV TRIM”) and press until you see the little indicator in the ELEV TRIM window go all the way to the bottom of the window.
The flat lever at the bottom of this group appears to control your nose attitude and the ELEV TRIM wheel sets the attitude in stone. It’s possible, however, that the lever is a bouyancy control. As you play with them, you’ll see how they control the climb and dive of the ship.
Once you feel like you’ve learned to avoid a diving death on the California scrub, the next important task is to admire yourself in flight. Hit the “a” key to switch your viewpoint to the aft chase camera. Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to slide the camera around your vessel.
That’s it! There’s more to the zeppelin, of course, and much more to X-Plane, as well. For example, there’s this range of third-party airships to try, including the Flying Pig, an updated Hindenburg, and a blimp each for Goodyear and Fuji.
If you have Chosen Dawn of Aces II
Once you’ve installed the application as required, launch it, and when the initial menu screen appears, click the button marked “Practice Offline.” Your main screen will blink and you’ll see a graphic of a rifle leaning on a wooden railing. At the top of the view are a series of buttons; click “Select.”
A dialog will open providing several choices of vintage aircraft accessed via the drop down menu under the large graphic that says “Planes.” Near the bottom of the list is a line labeled “LZ30.” Select that. You’ll see a preview of the ship, low over an aerodrome. With it selected, click “Setup,” and then the tab labeled “Flight.” The starting altitude should be set to 5000 feet. You can change it if you wish, but to learn the ship, some height is best. Click OK, and the Setup dialog should vanish.
Now click the button marked “Fly.” The view should change to a primitive, silhouetted view out the front windows of your airship. In white on the black are the airship controls. You should be cruising straight and level with all engines at full power. You can vary their power by hitting the numeral keys from 1 to 10 (these also cause you to jump though the gunnery positions; hit ‘1’ to get back to the control cabin), and stop or start them by hitting the ‘e’ key. More control info can be seen by hitting the ‘F4’ key.
While the controls seen here are as different from the actual controls of early Zeppelins as X-Plane’s, as far as I can tell, they also offer you control over the same things, and in more or less the same way, as all the early zeps. You control your bouyancy by venting gas or dropping water ballast. Your dirigible is divided into sections for the gas and you can control the bouyancy of each section. The in-game, fictional LZ30 has six gasbags; real ones had more. Your climbing and turn are controlled by your elevators and rudder. “K” and “I” control your elevators, while “A” and “D” control your rudder. That’s not it, of course, but it’s the basics.
Now, let’s look at ourselves!
Hit the “option” or “alt” key at the same time as the “v” key. you’ll be positioned as a far rear chase camera. Zoom in by using the “[” key and out with the “]” key. Rotate around the ship by using the numpad keys.
Like X-Plane, both versions of DoA have more to offer. Flying the WW1 combat planes that are Dawn of Aces’ reason for existence is definitely more exciting than flying the zeps, which are very slow and hard to maneuver.
DoA II once hosted a small but dedicated community of online pilots, but the game has aged and the players have largely moved on.
Curious about the user interfaces the games use to present the control of the airships to the user, I dug around to find a few images of zeppelin control cars. I did not know in detail the arrangement of the controls, but mostly recalled that the rudder and attitude controls were connected to two separate ship-style wheels, and in a large ship, each would be manned by a separate sailor.
I found four small images of Zeppelin control cars, one each from the LZ127 Graf Zeppelin, the LZ129 Hindenburg, and the LZ130, the Graf Zeppelin II. I also found one apparently taken at the Aeronauticum, an aviation museum located in Nordholz, Germany. The photo taken in the museum shows what I believe to be the control car arrangement for the Graf Zeppelin in flight with a full crew complement. However, the mannequins wear what appear to be military uniforms so this could represent a scene aboard a naval vessel.
LZ129 control deck view
As you can see, the control arrangements are quite different from the sort of controls that we commonly associate with aviation. This is at least partially because lighter-than-air aviation was seen as a naval technology, and therefore steering and crewing approaches derived from mariners’ solutions.