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Why are Airships safe?

By Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, CEO at OceanSky Cruises. Photo: Hybrid Air Vehicles

Fact is that DELAG – Deutsche Luftschifffahrts Aktiengesellschaft (translates as “German Airship Travel Corporation”), was the first airline in the world and flew more than 40,000 passengers using Zeppelins from 1910 to 1935 without a single casualty; it was later re-established as DZR – Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei in 1935. The fact is the safest way of travel today is by air.

Yet airships are generally regarded as a synonym to the Zeppelin Hindenburg, which went up in flames in the tragic catastrophe of 1937 when its hydrogen lifting gas caught fire upon landing in New Jersey, just outside of New York. The accident marked the beginning of the end for the commercial airship industry and until this day, airships have been regarded as unsafe and obsolete. But what is fact, and what is myth?

The Hindenburg accident in 1937. Photo: Nationaal Archief

The first stop in our exploration of the truth must be a glance into the human psyche, because it has such a present role in the unfolding of the airship history. The huge airships of the 20s and 30s, that connected continents at twice the speed of a ship without seasickness and with a view to die for, was the absolute luxury of its time and didn’t leave anyone without impressing. Airships were symbols of greatness, rivalry and respect. It was cutting edge technology and Germany was the undisputed leader.

Imagine a polarised world in 1937 with rising fascism and its opponents; where the US quietly opposed the developments in Europe but balanced on diplomacy not to be dragged into a war overseas. When the Hindenburg accident occurred, it was a world event, a first catastrophe to be captured on camera and a devastating blow to the rising superpower of “the Reich”.

A perfect opportunity to taint the swastika in a cloud of failure must not be missed; the Americans released the videoclip free of royalty to anyone in the world who had an audience, instilling fear and anxiety of airship travel in the minds of the population. Who would want to fly on a ship that could be engulfed in flames in 90 seconds? The era of the commercial ocean liners of the sky was over. However, airships survived in the US navy searching for U-boat wolfpacks during World War II and surveillance units in the Cold War. 

The film clip of the burning Hindenburg was seen by every man, woman and child and imprinted a fear of airships in the collective mind that represent something out of proportion.

But what is the full story? Can one commercial accident represent the whole industry of airships? Fact is that Hindenburg and its Zeppelin predecessors had carried tens of thousands of passengers in total, from 1931 on scheduled services across the Atlantic Ocean, with an impeccable safety record. When the great Titanic sank in 1912 and 1500 lives were lost, but did we stop travelling by sea? When the DC-4 “Flagship New England” crashed after take-off in 1946, and all 39 people onboard perished, did we stop flying on airplanes?

The accidents by passenger airplanes in the 40s and 50s was as frequent as once per month, increasing to twice per month in the 1960s. The only reason not more people were killed was that airplanes by that time didn’t carry more than 20-50 people on average. It took until 1969, until 100 out of 105 people were killed onboard an airplane attempting to land at Aswan International Airport in Egypt, just a week after 155 people, where 71 were bystanders on ground, had perished in a take-off in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The worst accident to date at the time.

1,500 lives were lost in the sinking of the Titanic. 
Hindenburg at Lakehurst

Hindenburg at Lakehurst. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum

The film clip of the burning Hindenburg was seen by every man, woman and child and imprinted a fear of airships in the collective mind that represent something out of proportion. And all because the human mind is wired to emphasize the importance of what we witness instead of the rationale in statistics and facts.

Today we can enjoy air travel as one of the safest ways of transport, particularly in Europe, Canada and the US where the most stringent regulations have developed over decades, followed by improved technical improvement and operational proficiency. All airborne vehicles such as helicopters, airplanes, airships and balloons that carry paying passengers are rooted in the same regulatory framework. 

Aircraft at Bromma Airport near Stockholm City in 1947. Photo: Wikimedia

So, will a new generation of airship offer a safe travel option? Well, they don’t yet exist in that function so it’s hard to prove in statistics, but if we look at the requisites it becomes obvious that airships will be a very safe travel option. Let’s look at the potential:

•    Airships will be regulated by the same level of stringent certification requirements as any commercial airplane. 
•    Airships use the safe non-flammable gas, helium, today. Helium can be used as a fire extinguisher, since it is impossible to ignite, due to a complete layer of electrons in its atom structure and helium does not react with other substances.
•    Airships land and take-off in bicycle speed. This is by far the most dangerous segment of flight, but airships make it safe by keeping low speed.
•    Airships have many engines, if one or two fail it doesn’t even constitute an emergency. 
•    Airships don’t need a runway to land, effectively offering the whole world, even water, as one big emergency landing field. 
•    Airships float in the air so they also float on water, which makes the sea a feasible emergency landing area. 
•    Even with a hole in the hull, airships can compensate the loss of helium with its ballonets, which are filled with air. That way the shape is not compromised and can continue flying even for a long period of time. 
•    The hull of the airship is nothing like in the past. Today’s materials are strong, light and rip-proof by fusing layers with different properties to form the gas-proof skin.
•    Airships fly low, unpressurised. This means there is no risk of rapid decompression, thus eliminating another threat to air safety.

The new Atlant airship. Photo: Atlant

The potential safety perspective of airships seems attractive, but yet counter intuitively airships might still feel unsafe. Why is this? Normally when we evolve our technologies we go faster and higher until we reach a point of unacceptable risk. Maybe new technologies are just inherently considered dangerous for the human mind, until it becomes ubiquitous? Even the “new yet old” technology that was once tested, appreciated and flown for decades. It’s time to question that feeling with logics and rationale.