British Airships, Past, Present, and Future
by George Whale
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British Airships: Past, Present and Future


George Whale

(Late Major, R.A.F.)





















Lighter-than-air craft consist of three distinct types: Airships, which are by far the most important, Free Balloons, and Kite Balloons, which are attached to the ground or to a ship by a cable. They derive their appellation from the fact that when charged with hydrogen, or some other form of gas, they are lighter than the air which they displace. Of these three types the free balloon is by far the oldest and the simplest, but it is entirely at the mercy of the wind and other elements, and cannot be controlled for direction, but must drift whithersoever the wind or air currents take it. On the other hand, the airship, being provided with engines to propel it through the air, and with rudders and elevators to control it for direction and height, can be steered in whatever direction is desired, and voyages can be made from one place to another—always provided that the force of the wind is not sufficiently strong to overcome the power of the engines. The airship is, therefore, nothing else than a dirigible balloon, for the engines and other weights connected with the structure are supported in the air by an envelope or balloon, or a series of such chambers, according to design, filled with hydrogen or gas of some other nature.

It is not proposed, in this book, to embark upon a lengthy and highly technical dissertation on aerostatics, although it is an intricate science which must be thoroughly grasped by anyone who wishes to possess a full knowledge of airships and the various problems which occur in their design. Certain technical expressions and terms are, however, bound to occur, even in the most rudimentary work on airships, and the main principles underlying airship construction will be described as briefly and as simply as is possible.

The term "lift" will appear many times in the following pages, and it is necessary to understand what it really means. The difference between the weight of air displaced and the weight of gas in a balloon or airship is called the "gross lift." The term "disposable," or "nett" lift, is obtained by deducting the weight of the structure, cars, machinery and other fixed weights from the gross lift. The resultant weight obtained by this calculation determines the crew, ballast, fuel and other necessities which can be carried by the balloon or airship.

The amount of air displaced by an airship can be accurately weighed, and varies according to barometric pressure and the temperature; but for the purposes of this example we may take it that under normal conditions air weighs 75 lb. per 1,000 cubic feet. Therefore, if a balloon of 1,000 cubic feet volume is charged with air, this air contained will weigh 75 lb. It is then manifest that a balloon filled with air would not lift, because the air is not displaced with a lighter gas.

Hydrogen is the lightest gas known to science, and is used in airships to displace the air and raise them from the ground. Hydrogen weighs about one-fifteenth as much as air, and under normal conditions 1,000 cubic feet weighs 5 lb. Pursuing our analogy, if we fill our balloon of 1,000 cubic feet with hydrogen we find the gross lift is as follows:

1,000 cubic feet of air weighs 75 lb. 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen weighs 5 lb. ——— The balance is the gross lift of the balloon 70 lb.

It follows, then, that apart from the weight of the structure itself the balloon is 70 lb. lighter than the air it displaces, and provided that it weighs less than 70 lb. it will ascend into the air.

As the balloon or airship ascends the density of the air decreases as the height is increased. As an illustration of this the barometer falls, as everyone knows, the higher it is taken, and it is accurate to say that up to an elevation of 10,000 feet it falls one inch for every 1,000 feet rise. It follows that as the pressure of the air decreases, the volume of the gas contained expands at a corresponding rate. It has been shown that a balloon filled with 1,000 feet of hydrogen has a lift of 70 lb. under normal conditions, that is to say, at a barometric pressure of 80 inches. Taking the barometric pressure at 2 inches lower, namely 28, we get the following figures:

1,000 cubic feet of air weighs 70 lb. 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen weighs 4.67 " ————- 65.33 lb.

It is therefore seen that the very considerable loss of lift, 4.67 lb. per 1,000 cubic feet, takes place with the barometric pressure 2 inches lower, from which it may be taken approximately that 1/30 of the volume gross lift and weight is lost for every 1,000 feet rise. From this example it is obvious that the greater the pressure of the atmosphere, as indicated by the barometer, the greater will be the lift of the airship or balloon.

Temperature is another factor which must be considered while discussing lift. The volume of gas is affected by temperature, as gases expand or contract about 1/500 part for every degree Fahrenheit rise or fall in temperature.

In the case of the 1,000 cubic feet balloon, the air at 30 inches barometric pressure and 60 degrees Fahrenheit weighs 75 lb., and the hydrogen weighs 5 lb.

At the same pressure, but with the temperature increased to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the air will be expanded and 1,000 cubic feet of air will weigh only 70.9 lb., while 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen will weigh 4.7 lb.

The lift being the difference between the weight of the volume of air and the weight of the hydrogen contained in the balloon, it will be seen that with the temperature at 60 degrees Fahrenheit the lift is 75 lb. - 5 lb. = 70 lb., while the temperature, having risen to 90 degrees, the lift now becomes 70.9 lb. - 4.7 lb. = 66.2 lb.

Conversely, with a fall in the temperature the lift is increased.

We accordingly find from the foregoing observations that at the start of a voyage the lift of an airship may be expected to be greater when the temperature is colder, and the greater the barometric pressure so will also the lift be greater. To put this into other words, the most favourable conditions for the lift of an airship are when the weather is cold and the barometer is high.

It must be mentioned that the air and hydrogen are not subject in the same way to changes of temperature. Important variations in lift may occur when the temperature of the gas inside the envelope becomes higher, owing to the action of the sun, than the air which surrounds it. A difference of some 20 degrees Fahrenheit may result between the gas and the air temperatures; this renders it highly necessary that the pilot should by able to tell at any moment the relative temperatures of gas and air, as otherwise a false impression will be gained of the lifting capacity of the airship.

The lift of an airship is also affected by flying through snow and rain. A considerable amount of moisture can be taken up by the fabric and suspensions of a large airship which, however, may be largely neutralized by the waterproofing of the envelope. Snow, as a rule, is brushed off the surface by the passage of the ship through the air, though in the event of its freezing suddenly, while in a melting state, a very considerable addition of weight might be caused. There have been many instances of airships flying through snow, and as far as is known no serious difficulty has been encountered through the adhesion of this substance. The humidity of the air may also cause slight variations in lift, but for rough calculations it may be ignored, as the difference in lift is not likely to amount to more than 0.3 lb. per 1,000 cubic feet of gas.

The purity of hydrogen has an important effect upon the lift of an airship. One of the greatest difficulties to be contended with is maintaining the hydrogen pure in the envelope or gasbags for any length of time. Owing to diffusion gas escapes with extraordinary rapidity, and if the fabric used is not absolutely gastight the air finds its way in where the gas has escaped. The maximum purity of gas in an airship never exceeds 98 per cent by volume, and the following example shows how greatly lift can be reduced:

Under mean atmospheric conditions, which are taken at a temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and the barometer at 29.5 inches, the lift of 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen at 98 per cent purity is 69.6 lb. Under same conditions at 80 per cent purity the lift of 1,000 cubic feet of hydrogen is 56.9 lb., a resultant loss of 12.9 lb. per 1,000 cubic feet.

The whole of this statement on "lift" can now be condensed into three absolute laws:

1. Lift is directly proportional to barometric pressure.

2. Lift is inversely proportional to absolute temperature.

3. Lift is directly proportional to purity.


The design of airships has been developed under three distinct types, the Rigid, the Semi-Rigid, and the Non-Rigid.

The rigid, of which the German Zeppelin is the leading example, consists of a framework, or hull composed of aluminium, wood, or other materials from which are suspended the cars, machinery and other weights, and which of itself is sufficiently strong to support its own weight. Enclosed within this structure are a number of gas chambers or bags filled with hydrogen, which provide the necessary buoyancy. The hull is completely encased within a fabric outer cover to protect the hull framework and bags from the effects of weather, and also to temper the rays of the sun.

The semi-rigid, which has been exploited principally by the Italians with their Forlanini airships, and in France by Lebaudy, has an envelope, in some cases divided into separate compartments, to which is attached close underneath a long girder or keel. This supports the car and other weights and prevents the whole ship from buckling in the event of losing gas. The semi-rigid type has been practically undeveloped in this country.

The non-rigid, of which we may now claim to be the leading builders, is of many varieties, and has been developed in several countries. In Germany the chief production has been that of Major von Parseval, and of which one ship was purchased by the Navy shortly before the outbreak of war. In the earliest examples of this type the car was slung a long way from the envelope and was supported by wires from all parts. This necessitated a lofty shed for its accommodation as the ship was of great overall height; but this difficulty was overcome by the employment of the elliptical and trajectory bands, and is described in the chapter dealing with No. 4.

A second system is that of the Astra-Torres. This envelope is trilobe in section, with internal rigging, which enables the car to be slung very close up to the envelope. The inventor of these envelopes was a Spaniard, Senor Torres Quevedo, who manufactured them in conjunction with the Astra Company in Paris. This type of envelope has been employed in this country in the Coastal, C Star, and North Sea airships, and has been found on the whole to give good results. It is questionable if an envelope of streamline shape would not be easier to handle, both in the air and on the landing ground, and at present there are partisans of both types.

Thirdly, there is the streamline envelope with tangential suspensions, which has been adopted for all classes of the S.S. airship, and which has proved for its purpose in every way highly satisfactory.

Of these three types the rigid has the inherent disadvantage of not being able to be dismantled, if it should become compelled to make a forced landing away from its base. Even if it were so fortunate as to escape damage in the actual landing, there is the practical certainty that it would be completely wrecked immediately any increase occurred in the force of the wind. On the other hand, for military purposes, it possesses the advantage of having several gas compartments, and is in consequence less susceptible to damage from shell fire and other causes.

Both the semi-rigid and the non-rigid have the very great advantage of being easily deflated and packed up. In addition to the valves, these ships have a ripping panel incorporated in the envelope which can easily be torn away and allows the gas to escape with considerable rapidity. Innumerable instances have occurred of ships being compelled to land in out-of-the-way places owing to engine failure or other reasons; they have been ripped and deflated and brought back to the station without incurring any but the most trifling damage.

Experience in the war has proved that for military purposes the large rigid, capable of long hours of endurances and the small non-rigid made thoroughly reliable, are the most valuable types for future development. The larger non-rigids, with the possible exception of the North Sea, do not appear to be likely to fulfil any very useful function.

Airship design introduces so many problems which are not met with in the ordinary theory of structures, that a whole volume could easily be devoted to the subject, and even then much valuable information would have to be omitted from lack of space. It is, therefore, impossible, in only a section of a chapter, to do more than indicate in the briefest manner a few salient features concerning these problems. The suspension of weights from the lightest possible gas compartment must be based on the ordinary principles of calculating the distribution loads as in ships and other structures. In the non-rigid, the envelope being made of flexible fabric has, in itself, no rigidity whatsoever, and its shape must be maintained by the internal pressure kept slightly in excess of the pressure outside. Fabric is capable of resisting tension, but is naturally not able to resist compression. If the car was rigged beneath the centre of the envelope with vertical suspensions it would tend to produce compression in the underside of the envelope, owing to the load not being fully distributed. This would cause, in practice, the centre portion of the envelope to sag downwards, while the ends would have a tendency to rise. The principle which has been found to be most satisfactory is to fix the points of suspension distributed over the greatest length of envelope possible proportional to the lift of gas at each section thus formed. From these points the wires are led to the car. If the car is placed close to the envelope it will be seen that the suspensions of necessity lie at a very flat angle and exert a serious longitudinal compression. This must be resisted by a high internal pressure, which demands a stouter fabric for the envelope and, therefore, increased weight. It follows that the tendency of the envelope to deform is decreased as the distance of the car from the gas compartment is increased.

One method of overcoming this difficulty is found by using the Astra-Torres design. As will be seen from the diagram of the North Sea airship, the loads are excellently distributed by the several fans of internal rigging, while external head resistance is reduced to a minimum, as the car can be slung close underneath the envelope. Moreover, the direct longitudinal compression due to the rigging is applied to a point considerably above the axis of the ship. In a large non-rigid many of these difficulties can be overcome by distributing the weight into separate cars along the envelope itself.

We have seen that as an airship rises the gas contained in the envelope expands. If the envelope were hermetically sealed, the higher the ship rose the greater would become the internal pressure, until the envelope finally burst. To avoid this difficulty in a balloon, a valve is provided through which the gas can escape. In a balloon, therefore, which ascends from the ground full, gas is lost throughout its upward journey, and when it comes down again it is partially empty or flabby. This would be an impossible situation in the case of the airship, for she would become unmanageable, owing to the buckling of the envelope and the sagging of the planes. Ballonets are therefore fitted to prevent this happening.

Ballonets are internal balloons or air compartments fitted inside the main envelope, and were originally filled with air by a blower driven either by the main engines or an auxiliary motor. These blowers were a continual source of trouble, and at the present day it has been arranged to collect air from the slip-stream of the propeller through a metal air scoop or blower-pipe and discharge it into an air duct which distributes it to the ballonets.

The following example will explain their functions:

An airship ascends from the ground full to 1,000 feet. The ballonets are empty, and remain so throughout the ascent. By the time the airship reaches 1,000 feet it will have lost 1/30th of its volume of gas which will have escaped through the valves. If the ship has a capacity of 300,000 cubic feet it will have lost 10,000 cubic feet of gas. The airship now commences to descend; as it descends the gas within contracts and air is blown into the ballonets. By the time the ground is reached 10,000 cubic feet of air will have been blown into the ballonets and the airship will have retained its shape and not be flabby.

On making a second ascent, as the airship rises the air must be let out of the ballonet instead of gas from the envelope, and by the time 1,000 feet is reached the ballonets will be empty. To ensure that this is always done the ballonet valves are set to open at less pressure than the gas valves.

It therefore follows in the example under consideration that it will not be necessary to lose gas during flight, provided that an ascent is not made over 1,000 feet.

Valves are provided to prevent the pressure in the envelope from exceeding a certain determined maximum and are fitted both to ballonets and the gaschamber. They are automatic in action, and, as we have said, the gas valve is set to blow off at a pressure in excess of that for the air valve.

In rigid airships ballonets are not provided for the gasbags, and as a consequence a long flight results in a considerable expenditure of gas. If great heights are required to be reached, it is obvious that the wastage of gas would be enormous, and it is understood that the Germans on starting for a raid on England, where the highest altitudes were necessary, commenced the flight with the gasbags only about 60 per cent full.

To stabilize the ship in flight, fins or planes are fitted to the after end of the envelope or hull. Without the horizontal planes the ship will continually pitch up and down, and without the vertical planes it will be found impossible to keep the ship on a straight course. The planes are composed of a framework covered with fabric and are attached to the envelope by means of stay wires fixed to suitable points, in the case of non-rigid ships skids being employed to prevent the edge of the plane forcing its way through the surface of the fabric. The rudder and elevator flaps in modern practice are hinged to the after edges of the planes.

The airship car contains all instruments and controls required for navigating the ship and also provides a housing for the engines. In the early days swivelling propellers were considered a great adjunct, as with their upward and downward thrust they proved of great value in landing. Nowadays, owing to greater experience, landing does not possess the same difficulty as in the past, and swivelling propellers have been abandoned except in rigid airships, and even in the later types of these they have been dispensed with.

Owing to the great range of an airship a thoroughly reliable engine is a paramount necessity. The main requirements are—firstly, that it must be capable of running for long periods without a breakdown; secondly, that it must be so arranged that minor repairs can be effected in the air; and thirdly, that economy of oil and fuel is of far greater importance to an airship than the initial weight of the engine itself.


The arrangements made for handling airships on the ground and while landing, and also for moving them in the open, provide scope for great ingenuity. An airship when about to land is brought over the aerodrome and is "ballasted up" so that she becomes considerably lighter than the air which she displaces. The handling party needs considerable training, as in gusty weather the safety of the ship depends to a great extent upon its skill in handling her. The ship approaches the handling party head to wind and the trail rope is dropped; it is taken by the handling party and led through a block secured to the ground and the ship is slowly hauled down. When near the ground the handling party seize the guys which are attached to the ship at suitable points, other detachments also support the car or cars, as the case may be, and the ship can then be taken into the shed.

In the case of large airships the size of the handling party has to be increased and mechanical traction is also at times employed.

As long as the airship is kept head to wind, handling on the ground presents little difficulty; on many occasions, however, unless the shed is revolving, as is the case on certain stations in Germany, the wind will be found to be blowing across the entrance to the shed. The ship will then have to be turned, and during this operation, unless great discretion is used, serious trouble may be experienced.

Many experiments have been and are still being conducted to determine the best method of mooring airships in the open. These will be described and discussed at some length in the chapter devoted to the airship of the future.

During flight certain details require attention, and carelessness on the pilot's part, even on the calmest of days, may lead to disaster. The valves and especially the gas valves should be continually tested, as on occasions they have been known to jam, and the loss of gas has not been discovered until the ship had become unduly heavy.

Pressure should be kept as constant as possible. Most airships work up to 30 millimetres as a maximum and 15 millimetres as a minimum flying pressure. During a descent the pressure should be watched continuously, as it may fall so low as to cause the nose to blow in. This will right itself when the speed is reduced or the pressure is raised, but there is always the danger of the envelope becoming punctured by the bow stiffeners when this occurs.


During the early days of the war, when stations were being equipped, the small type of airship was the only one we possessed. The sheds to accommodate them were constructed of wood both for cheapness and speed of construction and erection. These early sheds were all of very similar design, and were composed of trestles with some ordinary form of roof-truss. They were covered externally with corrugated sheeting. The doors have always been a source of difficulty, as they are compelled to open for the full width of the shed and have to stand alone without support. They are fitted with wheels which run on guide rails, and are opened by means of winches and winding gear.

The later sheds built to accommodate the rigid airship are of much greater dimensions, and are constructed of steel, but otherwise are of much the same design.

The sheds are always constructed with sliding doors at either end, to enable the ship to be taken out of the lee end according to the direction of the wind.

It has been the practice in this country to erect windscreens in order to break the force of the wind at the mouth of the shed. These screens are covered with corrugated sheeting, but it is a debatable point as to whether the comparative shelter found at the actual opening of the shed is compensated for by the eddies and air currents which are found between the screens themselves. Experiments have been carried out to reduce these disturbances, in some cases by removing alternate bays of the sheeting and in other cases by substituting expanded metal for the original corrugated sheets.

It must be acknowledged that where this has been done, the airships have been found easier to handle.

At the outbreak of war, with the exception of a silicol plant at Kingsnorth, now of obsolete type, and a small electrolytic plant at Farnborough, there was no facility for the production of hydrogen in this country for the airship service.

When the new stations were being equipped, small portable silicol plants were supplied capable of a small output of hydrogen. These were replaced at a later date by larger plants of a fixed type, and a permanent gas plant, complete with gasholders and high pressure storage tanks was erected at each station, the capacity being 5,000 or 10,000 cubic feet per hour according to the needs of the station.

With the development of the rigid building programme, and the consequent large requirements of gas, it was necessary to reconsider the whole hydrogen situation, and after preliminary experimental work it was decided to adopt the water gas contact process, and plants of this kind with a large capacity of production were erected at most of the larger stations. At others electrolytic plants were put down. Hydrogen was also found to be the bye-product of certain industries, and considerable supplies were obtained from commercial firms, the hydrogen being compressed into steel cylinders and dispatched to the various stations.

Before concluding this chapter, certain words must be written on parachutes. A considerable controversy raged in the press and elsewhere a few months before the cessation of hostilities on the subject of equipping the aeroplane with parachutes as a life-saving device. In the airship service this had been done for two years. The best type of parachute available was selected, and these were fitted according to circumstances in each type of ship. The usual method is to insert the parachute, properly folded for use, in a containing case which is fastened either in the car or on the side of the envelope as is most convenient. In a small ship the crew are all the time attached to their parachutes and in the event of the ship catching fire have only to jump overboard and possess an excellent chance of being saved. In rigid airships where members of the crew have to move from one end of the ship to the other, the harness is worn and parachutes are disposed in the keel and cars as are lifebuoys in seagoing vessels. Should an emergency arise, the nearest parachute can be attached to the harness by means of a spring hook, which is the work of a second, and a descent can be made.

It is worthy of note that there has never been a fatal accident or any case of a parachute failing to open properly with a man attached.

The material embodied in this chapter, brief and inadequate as it is, should enable the process of the development of the airship to be easily followed. Much has been omitted that ought by right to have been included, but, on the other hand, intricate calculations are apt to be tedious except to mathematicians, and these have been avoided as far as possible in the following pages.



The science of ballooning had reached quite an advanced stage by the middle of the eighteenth century, but the construction of an airship was at that time beyond the range of possibility. Discussions had taken place at various times as to the practicability of rendering a balloon navigable, but no attempts had been made to put these points of argument to a practical test.

Airship history may be said to date from January 24th, 1784. On that day Brisson, a member of the Academy in Paris, read before that Society a paper on airships and the methods to be utilized in propelling them. He stated that the balloon, or envelope as it is now called, must be cylindrical in shape with conical ends, the ratio of diameter to length should be one to five or one to six and that the smallest cross-sectional area should face the wind. He proposed that the method of propulsion should be by oars, although he appeared to be by no means sanguine if human strength would be sufficient to move them. Finally, he referred to the use of different currents of the atmosphere lying one above the other.

This paper caused a great amount of interest to be taken in aeronautics, with the result that various Frenchmen turned their attention to airship design and production. To France must be due the acknowledgment that she was the pioneer in airship construction and to her belongs the chief credit for early experiments.

At a later date Germany entered the lists and tackled the problems presented with that thoroughness so characteristic of the nation. It is just twenty-one years ago since Count Zeppelin, regardless of public ridicule, commenced building his rigid airships, and in that time such enormous strides were made that Germany, at the outbreak of the war, was ahead of any other country in building the large airship.

In 1908 Italy joined the pioneers, and as regards the semi-rigid is in that type still pre-eminent. Great Britain, it is rather sad to say, adopted the policy of "wait and see," and, with the exception of a few small ships described in the two succeeding chapters, had produced nothing worthy of mention before the outbreak of the great European war. She then bestirred herself, and we shall see later that she has produced the largest fleet of airships built by any country and, while pre-eminent with the non-rigid, is seriously challenging Germany for the right to say that she has now built the finest rigid airship.


To revert to early history, in the same year in which Brisson read his paper before the Academy, the Duke of Chartres gave the order for an airship to the brothers Robert, who were mechanics in Paris. This ship was shaped like a fish, on the supposition that an airship would swim through the air like a fish through water. The gas-chamber was provided with a double envelope, in order that it might travel for a long distance without loss of gas.

The airship was built in St. Cloud Park; in length it was 52 feet with a diameter of 82 feet, and was ellipsoidal in shape with a capacity of 30,000 cubic feet. Oars were provided to propel it through the air, experiments having proved that with two oars of six feet diameter a back pressure of 90 lb. was obtained and with four oars 140 lb.

On July 6th in the same year the first ascent was made from St. Cloud. The passengers were the Duke of Chartres, the two brothers Robert and Colin-Hulin. No valves having been fitted, there was no outlet for the expansion of gas and the envelope was on the point of bursting, when the Duke of Chartres, with great presence of mind, seized a pole and forced an opening through both the envelopes. The ship descended in the Park of Meudon.

On September 19th the airship made a second ascent with the same passengers as before, with the exception of the Duke. According to the report of the brothers Robert, they succeeded in completing an ellipse and then travelled further in the direction of the wind without using the oars or steering arrangements. They then deviated their course somewhat by the use of these implements and landed at Bethune, about 180 miles distant from Paris.

In those days it was considered possible that a balloon could be rendered navigable by oars, wings, millwheels, etc., and it was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century, when light and powerful motors had been constructed, that the problem became really practical of solution.

During the nineteenth century several airships were built in France and innumerable experiments were carried out, but the vessels produced were of little real value except in so far as they stimulated their designers to make further efforts. Two of these only will be mentioned, and that because the illustrations show how totally different they were from the airship of to-day.

In 1834 the Compte de Lennox built an airship of 98,700 cubic feet capacity. It was cylindrical in form with conical ends, and is of interest because a small balloon or ballonet, 7,050 cubic feet contents, was placed inside the larger one for an air filling. A car 66 feet in length was rigged beneath the envelope by means of ropes eighteen inches long. Above the car the envelope was provided with a long air cushion in connection with a valve. The intention was by compression of the air in the cushion and the inner balloon, to alter the height of the airship, in order to travel with the most favourable air currents. The motive power was 20 oar propellers worked by men.

This airship proved to be too heavy on completion to lift its own weight, and was destroyed by the onlookers.

The next airship, the Dupuy de Lome, is of interest because the experiments were carried out at the cost of the State by the French Government. This ship consisted of a spindle-shaped balloon with a length of 112 feet, diameter of 48 1/2 feet and a volume of 121,800 cubic feet. An inner air balloon of 6,000 cubic feet volume was contained in the envelope. The method of suspension was by means of diagonal ropes with a net covering. A rudder in the form of a triangular sail was fitted beneath the envelope and at the after part of the ship. The motive power was double-winged screws 29 feet 6 inches diameter, to be worked by four to eight men.

On her trials the ship became practically a free balloon, an independent velocity of about six miles per hour being achieved and deviation from the direction of the wind of ten degrees.

At the close of the nineteenth century Santos-Dumont turned his attention to airships. The experiments which he carried out marked a new epoch and there arose the nucleus of the airship as we know it to-day. Between the years 1898 and 1905 he had in all built fourteen airships, and they were continually improved as each succeeding one made its appearance. In the last one he made a circular flight; starting from the aerodrome of the aero club, he flew round the Eiffel Tower and back to the starting point in thirty-one minutes on October 19th, 1902. For this feat the Deutsch prize was awarded to him.

The envelopes he used were in design much nearer approach to a streamline form than those previously adopted, but tapered to an extremely fine point both at the both and stem. For rigging he employed a long nacelle, in the centre of which was supported the car, and unusually long suspensions distributed the weight throughout practically the entire length of the envelope. To the name of Santos-Dumont much credit is due. He may be regarded as the originator of the airship for pleasure purposes, and by his success did much to popularize them. He also was responsible to a large extent for the development and expansion of the airship industry in Paris.

At a little later date, in 1902 to be precise, the Lebaudy brothers, in conjunction with Julliot, an engineer, and Surcoup, an aeronaut, commenced building an airship of a new type. This ship was a semirigid and was of a new shape, the envelope resembling in external appearance a cigar. In length it was 178 feet with a diameter of 30 feet and the total capacity was 64,800 cubic feet. This envelope was attached to a rigid elliptical keel-shaped girder made of steel tubes, which was about a third of the length of the ship. The girder was covered with a shirting and intended to prevent the ship pitching and rolling while in flight. A horizontal rudder was attached to the under side of this girder, while right aft a large vertical rudder was fixed.

A small car was suspended by steel rods at a distance of 17 feet 9 inches from the girder, with a framework built up underneath to absorb the shock on landing.

A 35 horse-power Daimler-Mercedes motor, weighing some 800 lb. without cooling water and fuel, drove two twin-bladed propellers on either side of the car.

In the year 1903 a number of experimental flights were made with this ship and various details in the construction were continually introduced. The longest flight was 2 hours 46 minutes. Towards the end of that year, while a voyage was being made from Paris to Chalais Meudon, the airship came in contact with a tree and the envelope was badly torn.

In the following year it was rebuilt, and the volume was slightly increased with fixed and movable planes added to increase the stability. After several trips had been made, the airship again on landing came in contact with a tree and was burst.

The ship was rebuilt and after carrying out trials was purchased by the French Army. The Lebaudy airship had at that time been a distinct success, and in 1910 one was purchased for the British Government by the readers of the Morning Post.

In the ten-ton Lebaudy the length of the keel framework was greatly extended, and ran for very nearly the full length of the envelope. The disadvantage of this ship was its slowness, considering its size and power, and was due to the enormous resistance offered by the framework and rigging.

Airships known as the "Clement-Bayard" were also built about this time. They were manufactured by the Astra Company in conjunction with Monsieur Clement, a motor engineer.

In later days vessels were built by the Astra Company of the peculiar design introduced by Senor Torres. These ships, some of which were of considerable size, were highly successful, and we became purchasers at a later date of several.

The Zodiac Company also constructed a number of small ships which were utilized during the war for anti-submarine patrol. It cannot be said, however, that the French have fulfilled their early promise as airship designers, the chief reason for this being that the airship is peculiarly suitable for work at sea and the French relied on us to maintain the commerce routes on the high seas and concentrated their main efforts on defeating the Germans in the field, in which as all the world acknowledges they were singularly successful and hold us under an eternal obligation.


The progress and development of the airship in Germany must now be considered; it will be seen that, although the production of satisfactory ships was in very few hands, considerable success attended their efforts in the early days of the twentieth century.

In 1812, Leppig built an airship at the cost of the State at Woronzowo in Russia. This was of the shape of a fish with a rigid framework beginning at the height of the longitudinal axis.

The lower keel-shaped part of the same formed the car. Two fans were attached to the sides and a tail piece was provided behind to act as a rudder. The ship was inflated, but structural damage occurred during this operation and rendered it incapable of flight.

In 1836, Georg Rebenstein, of Nurnburg, was considering the use of the fall of inclined planes to obtain horizontal motion.

Nothing of importance was produced until a much later date, when in 1885 M. Wolf constructed an envelope of 26,500 cubic feet. An engine and propeller were fixed in a triangular framework in front of the airship, supported by the steam pipe of a steam engine fixed under the body of the envelope. The framework lacked rigidity, and the envelope tore during inflation and the airship failed to ascend.

In the following year Dr. Woelfert, of Berlin, produced a cigar-shaped envelope, to which was attached rigidly a long bamboo framework containing the car. An 8 horse-power benzine Daimler motor drove a twin-bladed aluminium propeller, and another propeller for vertical movement was provided beneath the car. Four trial flights were attempted, but on each occasion the motor gave unsatisfactory results, and Woelfert sought to improve it with a benzine vaporizer of his own pattern. This improvement was not a success, as during the last flight an explosion took place and both Woelfert and an aeronaut named Knabe, who was accompanying him, were killed.

In 1906, Major von Parseval experimented, in Berlin, with a non-rigid type of airship. His first ship had a volume of 65,200 cubic feet, but owing to his system of suspensions, the car hung 27 feet 6 inches below the envelope. A Daimler engine was used, driving a four-bladed propeller. Owing to the great overall height of this ship, experiments were made to determine a system of rigging, enabling the car to be slung closer to the envelope, and in later types the elliptical rigging girdle was adopted. His later ships were of large dimensions and proved very satisfactory. About the same time Major Gross also built airships for the German aeronautical battalion.

It is, however, the rigid airship that has made Germany famous, and we must now glance at the evolution of these ships with which we became so familiar during the war.

The first rigid airship bearing any resemblance to those of the present day was designed by David Schwartz, and was built in St. Petersburg in 1893. It was composed of aluminium plates riveted to an aluminium framework. On inflation, the frame-work collapsed and the ship was unusable.

In 1895 he designed a second rigid airship, which was built in Berlin by Messrs. Weisspfennig and Watzesch. The hull framework was composed of aluminium and was 155 feet long, elliptical in cross section, giving a volume of 130,500 cubic feet. It was pointed in front and rounded off aft. The car, also constructed of the same material, was rigidly attached to the hull by a lattice framework, and the whole hull structure was covered in with aluminium sheeting. A 12 horse-power Daimler benzine motor was installed in the car, driving through the medium of a belt twin aluminium screw propellers; no rudders were supplied, the steering being arranged by means of a steering screw placed centrally to the ship above the top of the car. Inflation took place at the end of 1897 by a method of pressing out air-filled fabric cells which were previously introduced into the hull. This operation took three and a half hours. On the day of the first flight trials there was a fresh wind of about 17 miles per hour. The airship ascended into the air, but, apparently, could make little headway against the wind. During the trip the driving-belt became disengaged from the propellers and the ship drifted at the mercy of the wind, but sustained little damage on landing. After being deflated, the hull began to break up under the pressure of the wind and was completely destroyed by the vandalism of the spectators.

In 1898 Graf F. von Zeppelin, inspired by the example of Schwartz, and assisted by the engineers Kober and Kubler, conceived the idea of constructing a rigid airship of considerable dimensions. For this purpose a floating shed was built on Lake Constance, near to Friedrichshafen. The hull was built of aluminium lattice-work girders, and had the form of a prism of twenty-four surfaces with arch-shaped ends. In length it was 420 feet, with a diameter of 38 feet 6 inches, and its capacity was 400,000 cubic feet. The longitudinal framework was divided by a series of rings, called transverse frames, into seventeen compartments containing fabric gasbags. The transverse frames were fitted with steel wire bracings, both radial and chord, and to strengthen the whole a triangular aluminium keel of lattice work was used. A vertical and horizontal rudder were fitted to the forward portion of the ship, and aft another vertical rudder. The whole exterior of the ship was fitted with a fabric outer cover.

Two aluminium cars, each about 20 feet long, were rigidly attached to the framework of the hull. Each car was furnished with a 16 horse-power Daimler engine, driving two four-bladed screw propellers of aluminium sheeting. These propellers were situated on the side of the hull at the centre of resistance. The transmission was supplied by steel tubes with universal cross joints through the medium of bevel gears. Reversible driving arrangements were installed in the cars in order that the ship could be driven backwards and forwards. Electric bells, telegraphs, and speaking tubes were also fitted, and it can be seen that for general arrangements this airship was a long way ahead of any built at that date.

The first flight was made on July 2nd, 1900. The ship attained a speed of 17 per hour, and the numerous technical details stood the tests well. The stability was considered sufficient, and the height of flight could be altered by the horizontal rudder. The landing on the water was accomplished without difficulty, and could be regarded as free from danger. The faults requiring remedy were, firstly, the upper cross stays, which buckled in flight owing to insufficient strength for the length of the hull; secondly, the gasbags were not sufficiently gastight and, thirdly, the power of the engines were not sufficient for such a heavy ship.

This airship was broken up in 1902.

In 1905 the second ship of the series was completed. She was of nearly the same size as the previous ship, but the workmanship was much superior. Increased engine-power was also supplied, as in this instance two 85 horse-power Mercedes engines were fitted. This ship was destroyed by a storm while landing during the next year.

The third ship, which was completed in 1906, was the first Zeppelin airship acquired by the Government, and lasted for a considerable time, being rebuilt twice, first in 1908 and again in 1911. She was slightly larger than the previous two.

The building was continued, and up to the outbreak of war no fewer than twenty-five had been completed. It is impossible, in the space at our disposal, to trace the career of all of them. Several came to an untimely end, but as the years went by each succeeding ship proved more efficient, and the first ship which was delivered to the Navy performed the notable flight of thirty-one hours.

To revert, for a moment, once more to the earlier ships—the fourth was wrecked and burned at Echterdingen in the same year in which she was completed. The fifth, which was the second military airship, was fitted with two 110 horse-power engines and also came to a tragic end, being destroyed by wind at Weilberg in 1910, and the following ship was burnt at Baden in the same year.

The seventh ship was the first passenger airship of the series, and was known as the Deutschland. By this time the capacity had increased to 536,000 cubic feet, and she was propelled by three 120 horse-power engines. She also fell a victim to the wind, and was wrecked in the Teutoberg Forest in 1910; and yet another was destroyed in the following year at Dusseldorf.

The tenth ship to be completed was the passenger ship Schwaben; her capacity was 636,500 cubic feet, and she had three 150 horse-power engines. This ship carried out her first flight in June, 1911, and was followed four months later by the Victoria Luise. The fourth passenger airship was known as the Hansa. These three ships were all in commission at the outbreak of war.

The first naval airship, L 1, mentioned above, was larger than any of these. The total length was 525 feet, diameter 50 feet, and cubic contents 776,000 cubic feet. Her hull framework in section formed a regular polygon of seventeen sides, and was built up of triangular aluminium girders. The gasbags were eighteen in number. This ship was fitted with three 170 horse-power Maybach engines, which were disposed as follows—one in the forward car, driving two two-bladed propellers; two in the after car, each driving a single four-bladed propeller. For steering purposes she had six vertical and eight horizontal planes. The total lift was 27 tons, with a disposable lift of 7 tons. Her speed was about 50 miles per hour, and she could carry fuel for about 48 hours. Her normal crew consisted of fourteen persons, including officers.

It will probably be remembered that the military Zeppelin Z III was compelled to make a forced landing in France. This ship was of similar construction to L 1, but of smaller volume, her capacity being 620,000 cubic feet. A trial flight was being carried out, and while above the clouds the crew lost their bearings. Descending they saw some French troops and rose again immediately. After flying for four hours they thought they must be safely over the frontier and, running short of petrol, made a landing—not knowing that they were still in France until too late. The airship was taken over by the French authorities.

Until the year 1916 the Zeppelin may be considered to have passed through three stages of design. Of the twenty-five ships constructed before the war, twenty-four were of the first type and one of the second. Each type possessed certain salient features, which, for simplicity, will be set out in the form of a tabulated statement, and may be useful for comparison when our own rigid airships are reviewed.

Stage 1. Long parallel portion of hull with bluff nose and tail. External keel with walking way. Box rudders and elevators. Two cars. Four wing propellers.

Stage 2. Long parallel portion of hull with bluff nose, tail portion finer than in Stage I Internal keel walking way. Box rudders and elevators. Three cars, foremost for control only. Four wing propellers.

Stage 3. Shorter parallel portion of hull framework, bluff nose and tapering tail. Internal keel walking way. Balanced monoplane rudders and elevators. Three cars, foremost for control only. Two foremost cars close together and connected by a canvas joint to look like one car. Four engines and four propellers. One engine in forward car driving pusher propeller. Three engines in after car driving two wing and one pusher propeller.

To the second stage belongs naval airship L 2, which was destroyed by fire a month after completion in 1913. In 1916 a fourth stage made its appearance, of which the first ship was L 30, completed in May, and to which the ill-fated L 33 belonged. This type is known as the super-Zeppelin, and has been developed through various stage until L 70, the latest product before the armistice. In this stage the following are its main features:

Stage 4.

Short parallel portion of hull, long rounded bow and long tapering stern. In all respects a good streamline shape. Internal keel walking way. Balanced monoplane rudders and elevators. Five cars. Two forward (combined as in Stage 3), one aft, and two amidships abreast. Six engines and six propellers. The after one of the forecar and the sidecars each contain one engine driving direct a pusher propeller. The after car contains three engines, two of which drive two wing propellers; the third, placed aft, drives direct a pusher propeller. In this stage the type of girders was greatly altered.

A company known as the Schutte-Lanz Company was also responsible for the production of rigid airships. They introduced a design, which was a distinct departure from Zeppelin or anyone else. The hull framework was composed of wood, the girders being built up of wooden sections. The shape of these ships was much more of a true streamline than had been the Zeppelin practice, and it was on this model that the shape of the super-Zeppelin was based. These ships proved of use and took part in raids on this country, but the Company was taken over by the Government and the personnel was amalgamated with that engaged on Zeppelin construction during the war.


In 1908, Italy, stimulated by the progress made by other continental nations, commenced experimental work. Three types were considered for a commencement, the P type or Piccolo was the first effort, then followed the M type, which signifies "medium sized," and also the semirigid Forlanini.

In the Forlanini type the envelope is divided into several compartments with an internal rigid keel and to-day these ships are of considerable size, the most modern being over 600,000 cubic feet capacity. During the war, Italian airships were developed on entirely dissimilar lines to those in other countries. Both we and our Allies, and to a great extent the Germans, employed airships exclusively for naval operations; on the other hand, the Italian ships were utilized for bombing raids in conjunction with military evolutions.

For this reason height was of primary importance and speed was quite a secondary consideration, owing to the low velocity of prevailing winds in that country. Flights were never of long duration compared with those carried out by our airships. Height was always of the utmost importance, as the Italian ships were used for bombing enemy towns and must evade hostile gunfire. For this reason weight was saved in every possible manner, to increase the height of the "ceiling."

In addition to the types already mentioned, three other varieties have been constructed since the war—the Usuelli D.E. type and G class. The G class was a rigid design which has not been proceeded with, and, with this single exception, all are of a semirigid type in which an essentially non-rigid envelope is reinforced by a metal keel. In the Forlanini and Usuelli types the keel is completely rigid and assists in maintaining the shape of the envelopes, and in the Forlanini is enclosed within the envelope. In the other types the keel is in reality a chain of rigid links similar to that of a bicycle. The form of the envelope is maintained by the internal pressure and not by the keel, but the resistance of the latter to compression enables a lower pressure to be maintained than would be possible in a purely non-rigid ship.

The M type ship is of considerable size, the P smaller, while the D.E. is a small ship comparable to our own S.S. design. The review of these three countries brings the early history of airships to a conclusion. Little of importance was done elsewhere before the war, though Baldwin's airship is perhaps worthy of mention. It was built in America in 1908 by Charles Baldwin for the American Government. The capacity of the envelope was 20,000 cubic feet, she carried a crew of two, and her speed was 16 miles per hour. She carried out her trial flight in August, 1908, and was accepted by the American military authorities. During the war both the naval and military authorities became greatly interested in airships, and purchased several from the French and English. In addition to this a ship in design closely resembling the S.S. was built in America, but suffered from the same lack of experience which we did in the early days of airship construction.

We must now see what had been happening in this country in those fateful years before the bombshell of war exploded in our midst.



It has been shown in the previous chapter that the development of the airship had been practically neglected in England prior to the twentieth century. Ballooning had been carried out both as a form of sport and also by the showman as a Saturday afternoon's sensational entertainment, with a parachute descent as the piece de resistance. The experiments in adapting the balloon into the dirigible had, however, been left to the pioneers on the Continent.


It appears that in the nineteenth century only one airship was constructed in this country, which proved to be capable of ascending into the air and being propelled by its own machinery. This airship made its appearance in the year 1848, and was built to the designs of a man named Partridge. Very little information is available concerning this ship. The envelope was cylindrical in shape, tapering at each end, and was composed of a light rigid framework covered with fabric. The envelope itself was covered with a light wire net, from which the car was suspended. The envelope contained a single ballonet for regulating the pressure of the gas. Planes, which in design more nearly resembled sails, were used for steering purposes. In the car, at the after end, were fitted three propellers which were driven by compressed air.

Several trips of short duration were carried out in this airship, but steering was never successfully accomplished owing to difficulties encountered with the planes, and, except in weather of the calmest description, she may be said to have been practically uncontrollable.


In the same year, 1848, Bell's airship was constructed. The envelope of this ship was also cylindrical in shape, tapering at each end to a point, the length of which was 56 feet and the diameter 21 feet 4 inches. A keel composed of metal tubes was attached to the underside of the envelope from which the car was suspended. On either side of the car screw propellers were fitted to be worked by hand. A rudder was attached behind the car. It was arranged that trials should be carried out in the Vauxhall Gardens in London, but these proved fruitless.


In the closing years of the nineteenth century appeared the forerunners of airships as they are to-day, and interest was aroused in this country by the performances of the ships designed by Santos-Dumont and Count Zeppelin. From now onwards we find various British firms turning their attention to the conquest of the air.

In 1903 Dr. Barton commenced the construction of a large non-rigid airship. The envelope was 176 feet long with a height of 43 feet and a capacity of 235,000 cubic feet; it was cylindrical in shape, tapering to a point at each end. Beneath the whole length of the cylindrical portion was suspended a bamboo framework which served as a car for the crew, and a housing for the motors supplying the motive power of the ship. This framework was suspended from the envelope by means of steel cables. Installed in the car were two 50 horse-power Buchet engines which were mounted at the forward and after ends of the framework. The propellers in themselves were of singular design, as they consisted of three pairs of blades mounted one behind the other. The were situated on each side of the car, two forward and two aft. The drive also include large friction clutches, and each engine was under separate control.

To enable the ship to be trimmed horizontally, water tanks were fitted at either end of the framework, the water being transferred from one to the other as was found necessary.

A series of planes was mounted at intervals along the framework to control the elevation of the ship.

This ship was completed in 1905 and was tried at the Alexandra Palace in the July of that year. She, unfortunately, did not come up to expectations, owing to the difficulty in controlling her, and during the trial flight she drifted away and was destroyed in landing.


From the year 1905 until the outbreak of war Messrs. Willows & Co. were engaged on the construction of airships of a small type, and considerable success attended their efforts. Each succeeding ship was an improvement on its predecessor, and flights were made which, in their day, created a considerable amount of interest.

In 1905 their first ship was completed. This was a very small non-rigid of only 12,500 cubic feet capacity. The envelope was made of Japanese silk, cylindrical in shape, with rather blunt conical ends. A long nacelle or framework, triangular in section and built up of light steel tubes, was suspended beneath the envelope by means of diagonally crossed suspensions.

A 7 horse-power Peugeot engine was fitted at the after end of the nacelle which drove a 10-feet diameter propeller. In front were a pair of swivelling tractor screws for steering the ship in the vertical and horizontal plane. No elevators or rudders were fixed to the ship.


The second ship was practically a semi-rigid. The envelope was over twice the capacity of the earlier ship, being of 29,000 cubic feet capacity. This envelope was attached to a keel of bamboo and steel, from which was suspended by steel cables a small car. At the after end of the keel was mounted a small rudder for the horizontal steering. For steering in the vertical plane two propellers were mounted on each side of the car, swivelling to give an upward or downward thrust. A 30 horse-power J.A.P. engine was fitted in this case. Several successful flights were carried out by this ship, of which the most noteworthy was from Cardiff to London.


No. 2, having been rebuilt and both enlarged and improved, became known as No. 3. The capacity of the envelope, which was composed of rubber and cotton, was increased to 32,000 cubic feet, and contained two ballonets. The gross lift amounted to about half a ton. As before, a 30 horse-power J.A.P. engine was installed, driving the swivelling propellers. These propellers were two-bladed with a diameter of 61 feet. The maximum speed was supposed to be 25 miles per hour, but it is questionable if this was ever attained.

This ship flew from London to Paris, and was the first British-built airship to fly across the Channel.


The fourth ship constructed by this firm was completed in 1912, and was slightly smaller than the two preceding ships. The capacity of the envelope in this instance was reduced to 24,000 cubic feet, but was a much better shape, having a diameter of 20 feet, which was gradually tapered towards the stern. A different material was also used, varnished silk being tried as an experiment. The envelope was attached to a keel on which was mounted the engine, a 35 horse-power Anzani, driving two swivelling four-bladed propellers. From the keel was suspended a torpedo-shaped boat car in which a crew of two was accommodated. Originally a vertical fin and rudder were mounted at the stern end of the keel, but these were later replaced by fins on the stern of the envelope.

This ship was purchased by the naval authorities, and after purchase was more or less reconstructed, but carried out little flying. At the outbreak of war she was lying deflated in the shed at Farnborough. As will be seen later, this was the envelope which was rigged to the original experimental S.S. airship in the early days of 1915, and is for this reason, if for no other, particularly interesting.


This ship was of similar design, but of greater capacity. The envelope, which was composed of rubber-proofed fabric, gave a volume of 50,000 cubic feet, and contained two ballonets. A 60 horsepower engine drove two swivelling propellers at an estimated speed of 38 miles per hour. She was constructed at Hendon, from where she made several short trips.


In the early days of the war an airship was constructed by Mr. Marshall Fox which is worthy of mention, although it never flew. It was claimed that this ship was a rigid airship, although from its construction it could only be looked upon as a non-rigid ship, having a wooden net-work around its envelope. The hull was composed of wooden transverse frames forming a polygon of sixteen sides, with radial wiring fitted to each transverse frame. The longitudinal members were spiral in form and were built up of three-ply lathes. A keel of similar construction ran along the under side of the hull which carried the control position and compartments for two Green engines, one of 40 horse-power, the other of 80 horse-power, together with the petrol, bombs, etc.

In the hull were fitted fourteen gasbags giving a total capacity of 100,000 cubic feet. The propeller drive was obtained by means of a wire rope. The gross lift of the ship was 4,276 lb., and the weight of the structure, complete with engines, exceeded this.

It became apparent that the ship could never fly, and work was suspended. She was afterwards used for carrying out certain experiments and at a later date was broken up.

Apart from the various airships built under contract for the Government there do not appear to be any other ships built by private firms which were completed and actually flew. It is impossible to view this lack of enterprise with any other feelings than those of regret, and it was entirely due to this want of foresight that Great Britain entered upon the World War worse equipped, as regards airships, than the Central Empires or any of the greater Allied Powers.



The French and German military authorities began to consider airships as an arm of the Service in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and devoted both time and considerable sums of money in the attempt to bring them to perfection. Their appearance in the British Army was delayed for many years on account of the expense that would be incurred in carrying out experiments. In 1902, Colonel Templer, at that time head of the Balloon Section, obtained the necessary sanction to commence experiments, and two envelopes of gold-beaters skin of 50,000 cubic feet capacity were built. With their completion the funds were exhausted, and nothing further done until 1907.


In 1907 the first complete military airship in England was built, which bore the grandiloquent title of Nulli Secundus. One of the envelopes constructed by Colonel Templer was used: it was cylindrical in shape with spherical ends. Suspended beneath the envelope by means of a net and four broad silk bands was a triangular steel framework or keel from which was slung a small car. A 50 horsepower Antoinette engine was situated in the forward part of the car which drove two metal-bladed propellers by belts. At the after part of the keel were fitted a rudder and small elevators, and two pairs of movable horizontal planes were also fitted forward. It is remarkable that no stabilizing surfaces whatsoever were mounted. The envelope was so exceedingly strong that a high pressure of gas could be sustained, and ballonets were considered unnecessary, but relief valves were employed. The first flight took place in September and was fairly successful. Several were made afterwards, and in October she was flown over London and landed at the Crystal Palace. The flight lasted 3 hours and 25 minutes, which constituted at the time a world's record. Three days later, owing to heavy winds, the ship had to be deflated and was taken back to Farnborough.


In 1908 the old ship was rebuilt with several modifications. The envelope was increased in length and was united to the keel by means of a covering of silk fabric in place of the net, four suspension bands being again used. A large bow elevator was mounted which made the ship rather unstable. A few flights were accomplished, but the ship proved of little value and was broken up.


This little airship made its first appearance in the spring of 1909. The envelope was fish-shaped and composed of gold-beater's skin, with a volume of 21,000 cubic feet. One ballonet was contained in the envelope which, at first, had three inflated fins to act as stabilizers. These proved unsatisfactory as they lacked rigidity, and were replaced after the first inflation by the ordinary type. Two 8 horse-power 3-cylinder Berliet engines were mounted in a long car driving a simple propeller, and at a later date were substituted by a R.E.P. engine which proved most unsatisfactory. During the autumn permission was obtained to enlarge the envelope and fit a more powerful engine.


Beta was completed in May, 1910. The envelope was that of the Baby enlarged, and now had a volume of 35,000 cubic feet. The car was composed of a long frame, having a centre compartment for the crew and engines, which was the standard practice at that time for ships designed by the Astra Company. A 35 horse-power Green engine drove two wooden two-bladed propellers by chains. The ship was fitted with an unbalanced rudder, while the elevators were in the front of the frame. This ship was successful, and in June flew to London and back, and in September took part in the Army manoeuvres, on one occasion being in the air for 7 3/4 hours without landing, carrying a crew of three. Trouble was experienced in the steering, the elevators being situated too near the centre of the ship to be really efficient and were altogether too small.

In 1912, Beta, having been employed regularly during the previous year, was provided with a new car having a Clerget engine of 45 horse-power. In 1913 she was inflated for over three months and made innumerable flights, on one occasion carrying H.R.H. the Prince of Wales as passenger. She had at that time a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour, and could carry fuel for about eight hours with a crew of three.


In 1910 the Gamma was also completed. This was a much bigger ship with an envelope of 75,000 cubic feet capacity, which, though designed in England, had been built by the Astra Company in Paris. The car, as in Beta, was carried in a long framework suspended from the envelope. This portion of the ship was manufactured in England, together with the machinery. This consisted of an 80 horse-power Green engine driving swivelling propellers, the gears and shafts of which were made by Rolls Royce. The engine drove the propeller shafts direct, one from each end of the crankshaft.

Originally the envelope was fitted with inflated streamline stabilizers on either side, but at a later date these were replaced by fixed stabilizing planes. At the same time the Green engine was removed and two Iris engines of 45 horse-power were installed, each driving a single propeller. There were two pairs of elevators, each situated in the framework, one forward, the other aft. In 1912, having been rigged to a new envelope of 101,000 cubic feet capacity, the ship took part in the autumn manoeuvres, and considerable use was made of wireless telegraphy.

In a height reconnaissance the pilot lost his way, and running out of petrol drifted all night, but was safely landed. When returning to Farnborough the rudder controls were broken and the ship was ripped. In this operation the framework was considerably damaged. When repairs were being carried out the elevators were removed from the car framework and attached to the stabilizing fins in accordance with the method in use to-day.


In 1910 it was arranged by a committee of Members of Parliament that the Clement-Bayard firm should send over to England a large airship on approval, with a view to its ultimate purchase by the War Office, and a shed was erected at Wormwood Scrubs for its accommodation. This ship arrived safely in October, but was very slow and difficult to control. The envelope, moreover, was of exceedingly poor quality and consumed so much gas that it was decided to deflate it. She was taken to pieces and never rebuilt.


About the same time, interest having been aroused in this country by the success of airships on the Continent, the readers of the Morning Post subscribed a large sum to purchase an airship for presentation to the Government. This was a large ship of 350,000 cubic feet capacity and was of semi-rigid design, a long framework being suspended from the envelope which supported the weight of the car. It had two engines of 150 horse-power which developed a speed of about 32 miles per hour. The War Office built a shed at Farnborough to house it, and in accordance with dimensions given by the firm a clearance of 10 feet was allowed between the top of the ship and the roof of the shed. Inconceivable as it may sound, the overall height of the ship was increased by practically 10 feet without the War Office being informed. The ship flew over and was landed safely, but on being taken into the shed the envelope caught on the roof girders, owing to lack of headroom, and was ripped from end to end. The Government agreed to increase the height of the shed and the firm to rebuild the ship. This was completed in March, 1911, and the ship was inflated again. On carrying out a trial flight, having made several circuits at 600 feet, she attempted to land, but collided with a house and was completely wrecked. This was the end of a most unfortunate ship, and her loss was not regretted.


Towards the end Of 1910 the design was commenced of the ship to be known as the Delta, and in 1911 the work was put in hand. The first envelope was made of waterproofed silk. This proved a failure, as whenever the envelope was put up to pressure it invariably burst. Experiments were continued, but no good resulting, the idea was abandoned and a rubber-proofed fabric envelope was constructed of 173,000 cubic feet volume. This ship was inflated in 1912. The first idea was to make the ship a semi-rigid by lacing two flat girders to the sides of the envelope to take the weight of the car. This idea had to be abandoned, as in practice, when the weight of the car was applied, the girders buckled. The ship was then rigged as a non-rigid. A novelty was introduced by attaching a rudder flap to the top stabilizing fin, but as it worked somewhat stiffly it was later on removed. This ship took part in the manoeuvres of 1912 and carried out several flights. She proved to be exceedingly fast, being capable of a speed of 44 miles per hour. In 1913 she was completely re-rigged and exhibited at the Aero Show, but the re-designed rigging revealed various faults and it was not until late in the year that she carried out her flight trials. Two rather interesting experiments were made during these flights. In one a parachute descent was successfully accomplished; and in another the equivalent weight of a man was picked up from the ground without assistance or landing the ship.


The Eta was somewhat smaller than the Delta, containing only 118,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, and was first inflated in 1913. The envelope was composed of rubber-proofed fabric and a long tapering car was suspended, this being in the nature of a compromise between the short car of the, Delta and the long framework gear of the Gamma. Her engines were two 80 horse-power Canton-Unne, each driving one propeller by a chain. This ship proved to be a good design and completed an eight-hour trial flight in September. On her fourth trial she succeeded in towing the disabled naval airship No. 2 a distance of fifteen miles. Her speed was 42 miles per hour, and she could carry a crew of five with fuel for ten hours.

On January 1st, 1914, the Army disbanded their Airship Section, and the airships Beta, Gamma, Delta and Eta were handed over to the Navy together with a number of officers and men.



The rapid development of the rigid airships in Germany began to create a considerable amount of interest in official circles. It was realized that those large airships in the future would be invaluable to a fleet for scouting purposes. It was manifest that our fleet, in the event of war, would be gravely handicapped by the absence of such aerial scouts, and that Germany would hold an enormous advantage if her fleet went to sea preceded by a squadron of Zeppelin airships.

The Imperial Committee, therefore, decided that the development of the rigid airship should be allotted to the Navy, and a design for Rigid Airship No. 1 was prepared by Messrs. Vickers in conjunction with certain naval officers in the early part of 1909.

As will be seen later this ship was completed in 1911, but broke in two in September of that year and nothing more was done with her. In February, 1912, the construction of rigid airships was discontinued, and in March the Naval Airship section was disbanded.

In September, 1912, the Naval Airship section was once more reconstituted and was stationed at Farnborough. The first requirements were airships, and owing to the fact that airship construction was so behindhand in this country, in comparison with the Continent, it was determined that purchases should be made abroad until sufficient experience had been gained by British firms to enable them to compete with any chance of success against foreign rivals.

First a small non-rigid, built by Messrs. Willows, was bought by the Navy to be used for the training of airship pilots. In addition an Astra-Torres airship was ordered from France. This was a ship of 229,450 cubic feet capacity and was driven by twin Chenu engines of 210 horse-power each. She carried a crew of six, and was equipped with wireless and machine guns. The car could be moved fore and aft for trimming purposes, either by power or by hand. This was, however, not satisfactory, and was abandoned.

In April 1918, Messrs. Vickers were asked to forward proposals for a rigid airship which afterwards became e known as No. 9. Full details of the vicissitudes connected with this ship will be given in the chapter devoted to Rigid Airships.

In July, approval was granted for the construction of six non-rigid ships. Three of these were to be of the German design of Major von Parseval and three of the Forlanini type, which was a semi-rigid design manufactured in Italy. The order for the Parsevals was placed with Messrs. Vickers and for the Forlaninis with Messrs. Armstrong.

The Parseval airship was delivered to this country and became known as No. 4; a second ship of the same type was also building when war broke out; needless to say this ship was never delivered. At a later date Messrs. Vickers, who had obtained the patent rights of the Parseval envelope, completed the other two ships of the order.

The Forlanini ship was completing in Italy on the declaration of war and was taken over by the Italians; Messrs. Armstrong had not commenced work on the other two. These ships, although allocated numbers, never actually came into being.


This airship deserves special consideration for two reasons; firstly, on account of the active-service flying carried out by it during the first three years of the war, and, secondly, for its great value in training of the officers and men who later on became the captains and crews of rigid airships.

The Parseval envelope is of streamline shape which tapers to a point at the tail, and in this ship was of 300,000 cubic feet capacity. The system of rigging being patented, can only be described in very general terms. The suspensions carrying the car are attached to a large elliptical rigging band which is formed under the central portion of the envelope. To this rigging band are attached the trajectory bands which pass up the sides and over the top of the envelope, sloping away from the centre at the bottom towards the nose and tail at the top. The object of this is to distribute the load fore and aft over the envelope. These bands, particularly at the after end of the ship, follow a curved path, so that they become more nearly vertical as they approach the upper surface of the envelope. This has the effect of bringing the vertical load on the top of the envelope; but a greater portion of the compressive force comes on the lower half, where it helps to resist the bending moment due to the unusually short suspensions. A single rudder plane and the ordinary elevator planes were fitted to the envelope. A roomy open car was provided for this ship, composed of a duralumin framework and covered with duralumin sheeting. Two 170 horse-power Maybach engines were mounted at the after end of the car, which drove two metal-bladed reversible propellers. These propellers were later replaced by standard four-bladed wooden ones and a notable increase of speed was obtained.

Two officers and a crew of seven men were carried, together with a wireless installation and armament.

This airship, together with No. 3, took part in the great naval review at Spithead, shortly before the commencement of the war, and in addition to the duties performed by her in the autumn of 1914, which are mentioned later, carried out long hours of patrol duty from an east coast station in the summer of 1917. In all respects she must be accounted a most valuable purchase.


Parseval No. 5 was not delivered by Germany owing to the war, so three envelopes and two cars were built by Messrs. Vickers on the design of the original ship. These were delivered somewhat late in the war, and on account of the production of the North Sea airship with its greater speed were not persevered with. The dimensions of the envelopes were somewhat increased, giving a cubic capacity of 325,000 cubic feet. Twin Maybach engines driving swivelling propellers were installed in the car, which was completely covered in, but these ships were slow in comparison with later designs, and were only used for the instruction of officers and men destined for the crews of rigid airships then building.

An experimental ship was made in 1917 which was known as Parseval 5; a car of a modified coastal pattern with two 240 horse-power Renault engines was rigged to one of envelopes. During a speed trial, this ship was calculated to have a ground speed of 50 to 53 miles per hour. The envelope, however, consumed an enormous amount gas and for this reason the ship was deflated and struck off the list of active ships.

This digression on Parseval airships has anticipated events somewhat, and a return must now be made to earlier days.

Two more Astra-Torres were ordered from France, one known as No. 8, being a large ship of 4,00,000 cubic feet capacity. She was fitted with two Chenu engines of 240 horse-power, driving swivelling propellers. This ship was delivered towards the end of the year 1914. The second Astra was of smaller capacity and was delivered, but as will be seen later, was never rigged, the envelope being used for the original coastal ship and the car slung to the envelope of the ex-army airship Eta.

On January 1st, 1914, an important event took place: the Army disbanded their airship service, and the military ships together with certain officers and men were transferred to the Naval Air Service.

Before proceeding further, it may be helpful to explain the system by which the naval airships have been given numbers. These craft are always known by the numbers which they bear, and the public is completely mystified as to their significance whenever they fly over London or any large town. It must be admitted that the method is extremely confusing, but the table which follows should help to elucidate the matter. The original intention was to designate each airship owned by the Navy by a successive number. The original airship, the rigid Mayfly, was known as No. 1, the Willows airship No. 2, and so on. These numbers were allocated regardless of type and as each airship was ordered, consequently some of these ships, for example the Forlaninis, never existed. That did not matter, however, and these numbers were not utilized for ships which actually were commissioned. On the transfer of the army airships, four of these, the Beta, Gamma, Delta and Eta, were given their numbers as they were taken over, together with two ships of the Epsilon class which were ordered from Messrs. Rolls Royce, but never completed. In this way it will be seen that numbers 1 to 22 are accounted for.

In 1915 it was decided to build a large number of small ships for anti-submarine patrol, which were called S.S.'s or Submarine Scouts. It was felt that it would only make confusion worse confounded if these ships bore the original system of successive numbering and were mixed up with those of later classes which it was known would be produced as soon as the designs were completed. Each of these ships was accordingly numbered in its own class, S.S., S.S.P., S.S. Zero, Coastal, C Star and North Sea, from 1 onwards as they were completed.

In the case of the rigids, however, for some occult reason the old system of numbering was persisted in. The letter R is prefixed before the number to show that the ship is a rigid. Hence we have No. 1 a rigid, the second rigid constructed is No. 9, or R 9, and the third becomes R 23. From this number onwards all are rigids and are numbered in sequence as they are ordered, with the exception of the last on the list, which is a ship in a class of itself. This ship the authorities, in their wisdom, have called R 80—why, nobody knows.

With this somewhat lengthy and tedious explanation the following table may be understood:

No. Type. Remarks. 1. Rigid Wrecked, Sept. 24, 1911. 2. Willows Became S.S. 1. 3. Astra-Torres Deleted, May 1916. 4. Parseval Deleted, July, 1917. 5. Parseval Never delivered from Germany. (Substitute ship built by Messrs. Vickers). 6. Parseval Built by Messrs. Vickers. 7. Parseval Built by Messrs. Vickers. 8. Astra-Torres Deleted, May, 1916. 9. Rigid Deleted, June, 1918. 10. Astra-Torres Envelope used for C 1. 11. Forlanini Never delivered owing to war. 12. Forlanini Never delivered owing to war. 13. Forlanini Never delivered owing to war. 14. Rigid Never built. 15. Rigid Never built. 16. Astra-Torres See No. 8. 17. Beta Transferred from Army. Deleted, May, 1916. 18. Gamma Deleted, May, 1916. 19. Delta Deleted, May, 1916. 20. Eta Transferred from the Army. Fitted with car from No. 10. Deleted May, 1916. 21. Epsilon Construction cancelled May, 1916. 22. Epsilon Construction cancelled May, 1916. 23. Rigid 23 Class. 24. Rigid 23 Class. 25. Rigid 23 Class. 26. Rigid 23 Class. 27. Rigid 23x Class. 28. Rigid 23x Class. Never completed. 29. Rigid 23x Class. 30. Rigid 23x Class. Never completed. 31. Rigid 31 Class. 32. Rigid 31 Class, building. 33. Rigid 33 Class. 34. Rigid 33 Class. 35. Rigid Cancelled. 36. Rigid Building. 37. Rigid Building. 38. Rigid Building. 39. Rigid Building. 40. Rigid Building. 80. Rigid Building.

In August, 1914, Europe, which had been in a state of diplomatic tension for several years, was plunged into the world war. The naval airship service at the time was in possession of two stations, Farnborough and Kingsnorth, the latter in a half-finished condition. Seven airships were possessed, Nos. 2, 3 and 4, and the four ex-army ships—Beta, Gamma, Delta and Eta—and of these only three, Nos. 3, 4 and the Beta, were in any condition for flying. Notwithstanding this, the utmost use was made of the ships which were available.

On the very first night of the war, Nos. 3 and 4 carried out a reconnaissance flight over the southern portion of the North Sea, and No. 4 came under the fire of territorial detachments at the mouth of the Thames on her return to her station. These zealous soldiers imagined that she was a German ship bent on observation of the dockyard at Chatham.

No. 3 and No. 4 rendered most noteworthy service in escorting the original Expeditionary Force across the Channel, and in addition to this No. 4 carried out long patrols over the channel throughout the following winter.

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