How Crony Capitalism Killed the Zeppelin
Airships were initially considered safer and more capable than airplanes. It wasn’t just the Hindenburg that changed all that.
In today’s world, there are over 100,000 commercial airline flights every day and on rare occasion a small, tacky, promotional blimp. That’s made it unthinkable that lighter-than-air travel could ever be viewed as competitive to the airplane. But there was a time, before the Hindenburg disaster was forever etched in the public mind, when airships were considered the future of flight.While the 1920s saw multiple disasters in airship adventurism, German zeppelins sailed above their European and American counterparts due to their good safety record, efficiency, and success. “The genius was essentially German,” said a president of Goodyear. Airships had been primarily a Teutonic undertaking since Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin began experimenting with the technology in the 1890s. The airships, regarded so highly during the early 20th century, were the descendants of his original creations.
The popular opinion of experts at the time was that the airship and airplane would have to work in tandem, focusing on their own comparative advantages. For example, Dr. L.B. Tuckerman wrote in a 1926 issue of Scientific Monthly that “for a full mastery of the air both airships and airplanes are necessary, each in its own particular field.” Others foresaw impending airship dominance. Major George Whale wrote in Scientific American in 1921, “Until some entirely new design of airplane has been discovered, it seems fair to assume that no heavier-than air machine is capable of undertaking non-stop flights over a distance exceeding 2000 miles, carrying any commercial load.” He based this conclusion on the superior lift ratio of the airship. Zeppelins were lifted by hydrogen, the lightest of all gases; although flammable, its nearest competitor, helium, could provide only 93 percent of the lift and was 40 times more expensive. Helium was also a rare commodity, exported mostly from Texas, a huge disadvantage from the point of view of a German company like Zeppelin.
Some people favored the airship for more aesthetic and visual reasons. It looked the part. Airplanes were noisy, reeked of oil and gasoline, and were constantly beset by turbulence. Airships, on the other hand, were silent, smooth-flying, and models of comfort. Writing in 1928 for The North American Review, Arthur R. Blessing could not hide his wonder at the magic of the dirigible: