Thursday, April 18, 2013

Transatlantic Airships - An Illustrated History (Book Review)

Airships are one of my obsessions and books on them i hungrily consume. Transatlantic Airships is not a general history of airships though does cover a great deal of their heyday and more recent developments. It concentrates on airships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, seen as the great barrier in early aviation. Transatlantic passenger flights were seen in the 1920s as the great commercial opportunity for airships like the famous zeppelin, able to take passengers in comfort long distances. This was something the fixed wing aircraft of the time was far beyond being able to match.

In his well written and brilliantly illustrated book John Christopher describes the early history of the airship, both rigid and non-rigid and the advances in technology sparked by the First World War with the German zeppelins gaining longer and longer legs. The first airship to cross the Atlantic non-stop though was British, R34 which crossed from East to West in July 1919. Although the fixed wing aircraft beat it across with Alcock and Brown crossing in the other direction in their former Vimy bomber just 2 weeks beforehand, R34 did make the first return crossing by an aircraft. R34's epic journey is covered in great detail as are a number of other crossings, the book throughout is well illustrated with excellent photographs and period graphics and maps.

Despite the British lead (whose interest in airships was finally destroyed in the R101 crash) it was the German zeppelins who made passenger flights across the Atlantic their own with airships of increasing size and complexity culminating in the Hindenberg. The airship was holding its own in its special niche in the 1930s despite increasing competition by aeroplanes. The level of comfort that could be offered unmatched until the wide-bodied jet airliners of the 1970s (albeit for the rich only). Of course the airship was a lot slower but when you are rich maybe the time to travel  does not matter too much as a smoking room and a grand piano, as the Hindenberg had, does. The Hindenberg disaster killed off the commercial airship business though by then it was largely restricted to the zeppelin Atlantic trade.

If the Hindenberg had not blown up on that dreadful day in May 1937 its interesting to consider for how much longer the zeppelins would have crossed the Atlantic. It is likely they could have continued for a few more years though the disaster and the Second World War killed off the dream. That is not the end of the story the book recounts however as the wartime exploits of the US Navy's blimp squadrons (or blimprons) which on occasion crossed the Atlantic to get to their assignments in Europe are also included. The book ends with a look at recent airship developments including the Zeppelin NT though airships crossing the Atlantic carrying passengers in decadent comfort is probably a dream that will never live again.

Dreams are something the book covers well. Many futuristic (and outlandish) designs for airships were made in both sides of the war, even nuclear powered airships being considered at one stage but all of these dreams came to nothing. But it is good to dream after all, even if the dream is ultimately doomed.

No comments: