MeFi thread on the Sonora Aero Club Mysteries. Zeppelins + crazy nonsense technology + German immigrant engineers wandering around the Sonora Desert. Can’t wait to read it! My first Blimp Week post in many moons!
I firmly believe I had some blathering in me today. But at the current time my listless sleepiness has limited my actions to staring blankly at the contents of the directory entitled “Games” found on my hard drive. If one of my games could be played by my lying, motionless, and whispering commands such as ‘duck’ or ‘move right,’ I could conceivably be motivated to play.
Voice-command-enabled chess does not count. Checkers, perhaps, or tic-tac-toe.
A day or two ago, I received this note in the comments to The Wreck of The Shenandoah.
Thank you very much for this very informative site. I have a picture taken of the Wreck of the Shenandoah. The back of the picture says Ava, Ohio, the wreck of The Shenandoah. Sept. 3rd 1925. I believe the photo was taken by my late husband’s grandfather, Ray C. Shear of Lore City, Oh. It very much resembles one of the images on the sheet music, the one on the top right. I would be glad to scan the photo and send it by jpeg to anyone interested.
I corresponded with Ms. Shear, and she sent the pic along. She inherited the shot from her husband, but sadly has no further details. Click, as ever, to enlarge.
This is the final installment of Blimp Week II, folks, and I’m playing a couple of requests. Soon-to-be parasite on society Paul Frankenstein (he’s famous, you know) IMs, suggesting the title above. Ergo:
1. Go to Google Image search.
2. Enter the word “zeppelin” and hit the submit button.
3. Steal as many zeppelins as you’d like.
Thank you! I’ve been here all week!
Seriously, I looked for as many variations on this as I could, and I got bupkis. I did find an online steampunk tale, Queen Victoria and the Zeppelin Pirates, and brief references to a stop-motion film by one Karel Zerman called The Stolen Airship, but as far as I can tell, no factual incident of airship theft has been recorded, an astounding wrinkle in the gasbag.
Despite this, the early history of airships is rife with attempts to reverse engineer the technology or to obtain it by force of arms (there was a war on, after all). I’ve never encountered a detailed discussion of wartime espionage, but the themes play a big role in the ho-hum 1971 film Zeppelin, starring Michael York and Elke Sommer. York is a British spy sent to his duty in Freidrichshafen, where things get out of hand. I can’t recall if he attempts to steal the airship but we can safely state that it came up during script development and thus I rule it in bounds.
The creators went to great extents to make the ship convincing on screen, and as far as I could tell when I stumbled into it on the tube late one night, the interior control-deck seen in the film is quite accurate. Alas, the mediocrity of the film is apparently so great that even on the internet, no hard-core of obsessed admirers has surfaced to liberally sprinkle the darkweb with illict screen captures and grainy Quicktime video. At least there is some sort of collector’s market.
At the other end of the spectrum from technicolor films I’ve seen by directors I’ve never heard of, Dirigible was made in 1931 in black-and-white and directed by Frank Capra. I’ve never seen it, but it has a much cooler poster than that seventies monstrosity, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s my understanding that the film also features the USS Los Angeles in her only starring role.
As usual, John Dziadecki has done the legwork on the topic of airships in film generally. His list is really the best collection of information on the subject I have seen on the net.
Mr. Frankenstein also sought information on the scene in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in which the Hindenburg III is moored to the airship mast of the Empire State Building, and the passengers debark via a rickety nose-mounted gangway, high above the city. He wanted to know if the mast had ever actually been employed to moor an airship, and if so, if the depiction was accurate.
I had a hard time sourcing the details, but I know the answers off the top of my head, so here’s my un-researched skinny. The mast was added in the throes of a height race with the builders of the Chrysler Building, and its’ primary purpose is to add footage to the obelisk. The decision to design and promote the tower as an airship mast was largely driven by the desire for publicity. Shortly after the building was completed, of course, the airship era was brought to an abrupt and explosive close. However, even if the Hindenburg had not exploded, it’s unlikely that the Empire State’s mast would ever have been used.
At the time that the mast was conceived, there were two kinds of masts in common use on airship bases around the world. One, a mast low enough to the ground to allow the base of the ship to touch the ground and to allow people to board and debark directly, was less employed than another. The other, the high mast, is the approach which the Empire State’s mast emulates.
The high mast was, as the name implies, much taller. The moored airship’s crew would indeed primarily enter and leave via a nose-mounted gangway. If I understand the details, mooring a ship to the high mast was easier, faster, and required less crew, and therefore only if it was absolutely needed did a ship moor to the low mast. However, around 1920 (I think), a series of accidents occurred which led to the abandonment of the high mast generally, well before the Empire State building was completed.
The essential problem is that an airship is a great sail in the wind, and when the ships were tethered to the masts, wind could cause breakaways which severely damaged the craft and often occurred with only a skeleton crew aboard. The vessels were symbols of national pride and terribly expensive, and so it was rapidly learned not to expose them to the risks of the open air while moored.
So, amusingly, the most improbable aspect of the Hindenburg III sequence in Sky Captain – the absurd, apparent risk inherent in walking a plank while a quarter mile in the air – is also its’ most and least realistic element, simultaneously. It’s an enigma, a chinese puzzle box of the cinema, I tells ya!
I think we can fairly argue that the failure of humans to practice the second-oldest profession with regard to lighter-than-air aviation is also a mystery, and since this is a wrap up I can use that to transition into a couple of interesting anecdotes. Solidy in the realm of documented mystery along the lines of the Marie Celeste, the mystery of The Ghost Blimp generates a new story every few years. I believe the image below, of the pilotless vessel’s crash landing, originally ran with the linked story in print.
Well, if that doesn’t satisfy your appetite for fearful phenomena, may I suggest a careful, late-night perusal of The Mystery Airship of 1897, in which a rash of Victorian airship sightings in the midwest appear to presage our own darling UFOs and flying saucers. Triangulating airships and the UFO subspecies of delta-shaped craft brings us to the intriguing backyard engineering group JP Aerospace, whose mission is to develop a high-altitude lighter-than-air craft as a launch platform for spacecraft, or as they put it, “ATO – airship to orbit.” Widely reported this summer to be preparing a test flight of a 172-foot V-shapped craft, the Ascender, I found no meaningful follow-up and surmise the flight did not take place this year.
And so Blimp Week II sails into the enveloping fog of the internet, her graceful lines gradually losing definition in the digital mists as she succumbs to bit rot. Thanks for sailing!
Man, am I beat.
Thus, some brevity, in theory.
Let’s set things up for a ruminantive journey by peeking in on FROM BABYKILLER TO ART DECO ICON: images of the airship, authored in 2002 and concluding with a paragraph that looks ahead to the coming hypercapitalist celebration of the airship.
Having digested that (and franked the letters as apprpriate) we shall turn back the hands of time to the innocent age of 1994, where we confront The Great Pink Floyd Airship Mystery, a conundrum that continues to inspire analyses such as Organization as the Message. For those, like me, who were unaware that in 1994 promotional blimps cruised the European skies, scaring the unwary and pleasing the archetypal bong-toting Floyd devotee, it is worth reproducing the images of these artships.
Of course, there’s always been loads of photos of the blimps and dirigibles. Often the ones that get reproduced emphasize the looming bulk of the items via an extreme foreshortening, or juxtapose the ship, in the near foreground, with an impossibly large item in the near distance. For example, there are aerial photos of at least the Macon and the Akron (and I had thought the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg) off the shoulder of Manhattan, looming in the viewfinder to cover most of the Lower East Side.
These images are striking, and fantastic, and the sheer impossibility of the sight – how can something that big be in the sky? – accounts for a good portion of the wonder and interest that the blimps and dirigibles exert today.
Of course, it’s good to think contextually, as well. The great semi-military dirigibles of the U. S., Britain, and Germany played a role in the interwar period much like the space program. Technological wonders and simple awe helped convey the idea of progress, of the future. One day, millions would slide from continent to continent in grace and style, Bertie Wooster attended by Jeeves aboard the Vickers Transoceanic as a dance band serenaded the passengers beneath the balmy mid-Atlantic stars topside.
An interior view of the deck configuration aboard the British airship R-100, from the Airship Heritage Trust.
But if you’ve ever seen the Goodyear, or Fuji, or Sanyo blimps in the sky, you may have noticed that however big the blimp may be, the sky is much larger. When looking at these things with your eye, your brain communicates the scale to you in myriad ways. But the quantifiable degree of visual space the ships occupy in the vast reaches is quite small. The techniques employed in the images described and cited above counteract this fact to communicate scale.
What would it look like if a photographer consistently framed the great dirigibles against large objects on the ground, from the ground?
Theodor Horydczak did just that. In several of his many aviation-themed photos, he framed the Graf Zeppelin in the upper center of his viewfinder over a city street and above the Capitol. The Los Angeles over (and through) the Lincoln Memorial.
Is he constructing a meaning here? I guess that his intent was simply to juxtapose the old (the horse and cart) with the new; the accomplishments of America past with America future. The implicit ironic threat of an Art Deco envoy of the Nazi state hanging over the Capitol with all the shining grace of Damocles’ sword may not have come clear until 1940. The subtler juxtaposition of the Los Angeles (and, although I do not reproduce it here, the Goodyear-manufactured Akron) with the Lincoln Memorial is likely only to strike the paranoid dyslexic as a warning of looming civil war and dystopian threats to democracy developing from the structural pressures of hypercapitalism. Happily, Mr. Horydczak’s images cast the Memorial as a redoubt and temple from within which we peer at the emblem of industry securely.
One day in 1906 another American (I presume) set about to fly the airship Eagle in the fair city of Chicago. The crowd gaped.
About twenty-five years later, on August 28, 1929, crowds gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to see the Graf Zeppelin on a stopover in her record-setting round-the world flight. They came, of course, to look at the 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.
(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.
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.
My original game plan called for “How to build a Zeppelin” to run today, the natural followup to “How to fly a Zeppelin.” Alas, a plethora of resources has led to a dearth of editing and composition time, and I therefore deem it meet to instead feature a first-person account of a journey at the pace of the clouds.
From Rio to Akron aboard the Graf Zeppelin, 1933, by Alicia Momsen Miller, is a memoir recounting the author’s childhood voyage from South America to Ohio, home of the Goodyear Company and the Zeppelin company’s most important international technology partner. Amusing me, the number one Google result for “Goodyear Akron 1933” is this page concerning the 1931-1933 career of the USS Akron, the third great U. S. Navy rigid airship. It met its’ end in April of 1933; Mrs. Miller’s flight took place in October, 1933.
In 1933, when I was eight, my parents were planning a vacation by ship to the U.S. I don’t know whether it was my father’s idea or that of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corp., but my father and his family were offered a free trip on the Graf Zeppelin from Rio de Janeiro to Chicago. Our trip would be part of a triangular flight, Germany-Brazil-U.S.-Germany. With the Graf Zeppelin we would visit the Chicago World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress.” But my father had to convince my mother to travel by air…
They drove to the airfield the next day, and my mother told us later, “There was the huge airship, tied to the ground. It was a very windy day, and its outer covering was shivering. The fabric looked like you could poke a hole through it with your finger.” She was horrified, deciding never to trust her children in such a thing. But my father insisted they look at the accommodations in the gondola, and they ascended the short sturdy ladder.
“What a surprise!” my mother said, “The large living room with its big windows had a number of attractive chairs and tables, and down the hall were wonderful roomy double staterooms.” She felt the mattresses, and found them comfortable. The wide bunks were made up with linen sheets and warm fluffy blankets. “If anything happens, at least we’ll all be together,” she said.
In the instance, however, Mrs. Miller’s mother had nothing to worry about. Graf Zeppelin met with her end only in 1940, when the increasing demands of World War II led the German state to disassemble the surviving ships, grounded since the Hindenburg disaster.
I have previously linked to the fascinating Larry’s U.S. Navy Airship Picture Book (now back in print!), but I had a hard time coming up with other first person narratives. I found plenty of stuff about some rock band, though.
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.