Why the dirigible will never come back

One of the greatest casualties of the 20th century was the dirigible (or zeppelin, blimp, or airship, call it what you will). Although it was made obsolete by the fixed-wing aircraft, the dirigible has yet to be surpassed in sheer romance, and has long been admired by Steampunk writers and fans. Ponder how amazing it would be if things had turned out differently, and dirigibles still regularly graced the skies above us, docking gently with our tallest skyscrapers. And unlike the cramped confines of an airplane, traveling in dirigibles was downright luxurious, with observation decks providing grand views of the scenery below.
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The only problem is, the dirigible died out because fixed-wing airplanes are simply much better. They can travel significantly faster, don’t need to bother with large volumes of tricky-to-corral lighter-than-air gas, can navigate rough weather much better, and don’t require large ground crews to land (a plane just needs an open runway; a dirigible needs a ground crew to grab and secure its tethers). So you can see why I’m a bit skeptical whenever another story hits the media about yet another dirigible that’s supposedly going to bring blimps back into style (pictured to the right).

Dirigibles were awesome, but they simply aren’t coming back in any real capacity, no matter how many times they’re “reinvented”. The latest fad is in dirigibles that aren’t actually lighter-than-air, and that thus require the lift generated from wings during forward motion to stay aloft. The article I’ve linked above is far from the only airship using this design that’s been marketed recently. But the new design simply doesn’t address enough of the fundamental disadvantages of the airship, so expect to see it only in fringe applications, like leisure cruises. It won’t be causing any revolutions in air travel, passenger or cargo.

It’s a shame, but the dirigible, just like the telegraph, is a technology whose time has come and gone. The only sliver of hope for the airship is in its nostalgia value.

19 Responses to “Why the dirigible will never come back”

  1. Gregory Maxwell Says:

    They don’t actually require finniky and rare lighter than air gasses… they’d work even better on good old infinitely available hard vacuum. ;)

    /me goes searching for a 100 meter diamond/carbon nanotube dome and efficient nano-machine turbo pumps

  2. T2A` Says:

    I bet you said the same thing about vinyl records, but they’re coming back!

  3. William (green) Says:

    As off-brand Frisbees, maybe.

  4. William (green) Says:

    Ah. The “analog has better quality” argument. Eventually, someone will realize they can encode music higher than 128kbps, and use headphones that cost more than $5, and the fad will end.

  5. Kelly Martin Says:

    Oh, we can wish, William, but that’s doubtful. The audiophool world is full of people who have flatly unreasonable beliefs about sound quality.

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    T2A`: Vinyl records aren’t coming back, though. Yeah, maybe they have a bit of a year-over-year increase in sales, but they’ll never again come even close to their heyday. Vinyl records today are like the Goodyear blimp today.

  7. William (green) Says:

    I would probably fit in the category of “flatly unreasonable beliefs about sound quality”, as I am perfectly content with 128kbps MP3. I won’t quite call myself an audiophool, but I can’t tell the difference between MP3 128, at 320, and FLAC. And I don’t like music enough to want to spend 100MB for 10 minutes when I can spend 15-20 for the same with some quality loss. See JPG, you know?

  8. Greg Maxwell Says:

    I don’t think you have unreasonable beliefs based on your statements above.

    Now, MP3 @ 128 even with state of the art encoders is pretty clearly distinguishable by trained ears. Most MP3s are not encoded with the state of the art encoder and are clearly worse off.

    I’ve done audio codec development as well as spent a lot of time doing careful listening. … but it doesn’t take years of experience to learn how to listen for stereotypical transform codec distortion: I could sit down with you and some carefully selected example recordings and teach you what the distortion added by MP3 sounds like in only a half hour or so. If you enjoy music, you’d probably hate me for it. … there is a lot of fairly low quality lossly compressed audio and, at least in my case, I’ve found that the ability to hear it isn’t something that can just be turned off.

    But it doesn’t take a lot more than 128kbit MP3 to be statistically indistinguishable to even trained listeners on all but the most tricky problem samples. … So I think your point holds true. Better than 128kbit MP3 is easy to justify, but 2x the bitrate, much less 24/96 lossless, is a lot harder to justify.

    Some fun reading here.

  9. arensb Says:

    The only sliver of hope for the airship is in its nostalgia value.

    That could work. Ships haven’t been a good way of getting people from A to B in a long time, but the cruise industry is still around, and ships’ strengths — nostalgia and romance — are the same as dirigibles’.

    Of course, there’s the minor problem of making money from airship cruises.

  10. I like R4p-3 Says:

    HOLY STARS BATMAN, CD PLAYERS ARE COMING BACK!

  11. Garry Says:

    I disagree. I think the airship has a future as a commuter. Saying that fixed-wing planes have rendered the dirigible obsolete misses the point. Fixed-wing aircraft have rendered cruise-ships obsolete, yet people still travel on them. While some do so out of fear of flying, the vast majority do so for the experience. I had a chance to go up in the Goodyear blimp back in 1980. It was an unforgettable delight. There is nothing like lighter-than-air travel. Consider that, despite the hazards of hydrogen, only a very tiny percentage of folks died from airship disasters (most of the passengers on the Hindenburg survived). With modern-day technology, airship travel would be faster, much safer and more comfortable than the early dirigibles. Modern impervious materials would corral helium (or hydrogen, albeit most passengers would be too intimidated and you’d probably never be able to get insurance) much more effectively. Ground crews would be minimal as this design would not need to be turned into the wind as it would have the same aerodynamic signature, regardless of orientation. For instance, one proposal is for a disc-shaped “cloud-ship” that, with computer guidance, gimbaled engines and laser ranging and guidance can drop the ship straight down in winds up to 50 mph onto a locking ring attached to a terminal that, complete with parking and support infrastructure, would take up a mere 30 acres of land. Under normal conditions, no ground crew would be needed. Cost would be in the tens of millions.
    Compare that to the thousands of acres of flat land needed for 4,000 foot runways, taxiing ramps, tarmacs, etc. for jets and their support infrastructure costing HUNDREDS of millions. The same mechanism can be mounted atop a building in downtown where-ever. Solar technology is rapidly advancing to the point where a solar “skin” can be applied to a surface of more than 1 million square feet, enough to drive electric motor-driven props with gas turbine back-up. Such a vessel could cross the ocean, using only a TINY percentage of fuel that even the most economical jets use. A jetliner is all about getting you there and getting it over with. An airship, much like a cruise ship is all about the EXPERIENCE. It is far more appropriate to compare the airship to the ocean-going ship. Sure, there are drawbacks, such as needing better conditions to land and take-off than a jet requires, but such instances would be rare. In summation, the airship is not about replacing any other mode of transportation, but, rather, adding an exciting option. There’s nothing like it. You may be right about airships not returning, but if so, it would be for lack of vision. I have more faith than that.

  12. Christian F Says:

    Who said you have to land at all, such a cloud ship could just hoover or just slow down to let shuttles helicopters deliver passengers, the best powerplant would be a nuclear powered turbines , witch would of courses require a truly enormous vessel, you should be able to put an heliport on somethings that big , after all they used to launch fighters planes out of the US navy ones,

  13. Vessel Airplane Search Says:

    There are certainly many things that we could encounter in our lives and this is one thing that we should be able to comprehend.

  14. airship zepplin Says:

    we can never tell how things get much complicated..
    but as we sure..it will happen..they’re coming back..

  15. Viva Dirigibles! Says:

    Like the post preceding mine (selling copy machines), you wonder why so many things exist today that simply shouldn’t.
    Out of all the useless “inventions” our society produces, the modern dirigible will not be one of them.

    In all seriousness, small dirigibles would be on par with the small sailboat and Cesna airplane.

    Furthermore, given the combined forces of decreased oil availability and increased effects of global climate change, we will be looking for alternative, carbon-free forms of travel. A dirigible covered in solar panels?

    Already one organization is investing heavily researching battery-powered airplanes and bio-jetfuels.

  16. Brandenv Says:

    I’m sitting in a 3D and Animating class and we’ve been assigned to do some research on Steam Punk and dirigibles for a few cinematic for the Gaming Major here at my school. I came across this article and thought it would be interesting if you haven’t heard that the U.S. Military has provided funding for the creation of such dirigibles that will haul heavy amounts of payload and stay in the air for weeks, mainly used as a surveillance tool in the Middle East.

    I recall hearing this on my drive to school a few months ago either on BBC radio news or NPR. But here’s a link to a similar article on dirigibles and military funding, so maybe they will make a feasible comeback :)

  17. Brandenv Says:

    Forgot the link…
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/15/aerostats-military-testin_n_539190.html

  18. steve Says:

    did you see the new navy airship? the ma-32 stationed in new jursey. winter home in dunnellon, florida.

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