Non-rigid airships were being used in the United States before the First World War, and they have been used there continuously ever since, for very many purposes both military and civil. Most other countries have made only very limited use of airships since the end of the Second World War. However the 21st Century is witnessing the rebirth of the airship throughout the whole World.
This Page is intended only as a very simple introduction to airships in the 21st century. Most of the information in it comes from the web sites of the people actually building or using airships, so if you want more information on any subject that is where you should look. I have not usually provided links, but a Google search will quickly take you there.Airships have many advantages over aeroplanes and helicopters, even mobile phone masts, spacecraft and satellites. Here are a few:
The safety of airships in the 21st century is discussed on another Page of my web site.
Airships are much more environmentally-friendly than aeroplanes, for many reasons.
The first is that they use very much less fuel. A commercially operated airship uses less fuel in a week than a 747 does taxying to the runway prior to take-off. An airship uses no fuel at all just to stay airborne, and only a very small amount of fuel in order to stay in one place.
Airships are ideally suited to be powered by solar panels, non-polluting hydrogen fuel cells, and also other new technologies as soon as they become available.
Airships are usually powered by large diameter slow revving ducted fans, which are very much quieter than any sort of aeroplane engine, and almost totally silent when hovering, taking off or landing.
21st century airships do not need purpose-built airports with long concrete runways, instead they can operate from a totally unprepared site, anywhere in the world, from the middle of a city to the middle of a wilderness area.
Airships are more spacious than aeroplanesA rush-hour tube train is volume-limited. The maximum length and width of each carriage is fixed by the size of the tunnels and the tightness of the curves on the track: if it is too big it may hit the tunnel walls or another train. The number of carriages is fixed by the length of the platforms at the stations. We cannot make the train bigger, so the only way we can get more passengers into a train is by giving each passenger less space, by putting the seats closer together or even by taking them out and making people stand.
An airship is weight-limited. The buoyancy must always be exactly equal to the weight. If we want to carry more passengers we must provide more buoyancy and we can only get more buoyancy by making the whole thing bigger.
An aeroplane is both volume limited and weight-limited, that is, everything must be made as small as possible and as light as possible - the worst of both worlds!
Airships are almost ideal for sightseeing. They provide plenty of space for everyone to have a picture window. They can fly very slowly, and even remain stationery. They can take off and land from any flat area, for example a coach or car park. There is no vibration as there is in aeroplanes, and particularly helicopters, so they provide a much more stable platform for taking photographs and videos.Although in the past most airships were cigar-shaped or elliptical because these shapes have the lowest air resistance, today circular airships have many advantages, particularly for purposes such as sightseeing which involve only short journeys at low speeds. To see some pictures of circular airships visit the 21st Century Airship Company web site - not surprisingly this site also contains a lot of other information on 21st century airships.
Hot air balloons are already widely used on African safaris: airships provide more space and comfort, can hover and change direction, and bring you back to your starting point.
Airships can be used in search and rescue operations. They can stay airborne for very much longer than helicopters, they can carry more observers and equipment, they are much more reliable and cheaper to run. They are much quieter particularly when hovering, and when hovering they do not produce a downdraught - this is particularly important in cliff, desert and snow rescues. They have far more space on board, permitting much better medical care for injured people. They can also operate at much greater altitudes, permitting their use in the highest parts of the Himalayas or Andes, beyond the reach of helicopters.
In major incidents they can carry far more equipment than a helicopter, act as a crane for lifting very heavy objects, and be used as a control room, mobile phone mast and telecomunications centre all rolled into one.
Airships as cranesAirships can be used as cranes, even skyhooks. They can remain in the same place for hours, or even days, using almost no fuel and making almost no noise. A big airship could lift a railway locomotive or carriage after a train accident, even in an area with very restricted access, and could be at the scene of an accident far quicker than any other type of crane.
Airships and broadcastingAirships are already widely used as platforms for television cameras covering sporting events, but they have many other uses in broadcasting, from carrying equipment, camera crews and reporters to areas which helicopters cannot reach, to providing complete mobile studios.