Q: What is an Airship?
An airship, also known as a dirigible, is a powered lighter-than-air
craft. In other words, an airship is an aircraft that derives its
lift from a lifting gas (usually helium or hot air) while it is
propelled forward by an engine.
Q: What are Lighter-Than-Air Craft or Aerostats?
An aircraft is anything that flies. A lighter-than-air craft is
any vehicle that flies because it is lighter than air. This includes
(a) balloons and (b) airships, also known as dirigibles.
Lighter-than-air craft are also known as aerostats, a term which
is derived from the ancient greek words "aer" and "statos", i.e.
standing or staying in the air. What makes a vehicle lighter than
air, is the fact that it uses a lifting gas (i.e. helium or hot
air) in order to be lighter than the surrounding air.
The difference between airships and balloons are the following:
Balloons simply follow the direction of the winds. In contrast,
airships are powered and have some means of controlling their
direction, usually with rudders.
Q: What Kinds of Airships are there?
There are four categories of airships, Rigid, Semi-Rigid, Non-Rigid
and Hot Air Airships.
- Rigid Airships
As their name implies, rigid airships have an internal frame. The
Zeppelins and the USS Akron and Macon were famous rigid airships.
The rigid structure, traditionally an aluminum alloy, holds up the
form of the airship. In general rigid airships are only efficient
when longer than 120 Meters (360ft.) because a good weight to
volume ratio is (or was) only achievable for large airships.
For a small airship the solid frame would have been too heavy.
There is hope that the use of composite materials will change
- Semi-rigid Airships
Semi-rigid airships were more poplular earlier this
century. They usually comprise a rigid lower
keel construction and a pressurized envelope above that.
The rigid keel can be attached directly to the envelope or hung
underneath it. The airships of Brazilian aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont
were semi-rigids. One of the most famous representants of the type was
Italia, the airship which General Umberto Nobile used on his attempt
to reach the North Pole.
- Non-rigid Airships or Blimps
Non-rigid airships, also known as Blimps, are the most common form
nowadays. They are basically large gas balloons. Their shape is maintained
by their internal overpressure. The only solid parts are the passenger
car and the tail fins. All the airships currently flying for publicity use
are of that type; the Goodyear Blimps, the Budweiser and the Metlife
Blimps in the USA, and the Fuji Blimp in Europe.
- Hot Air Airships
Hot air airships,
also known as thermal airships, are counted as a fourth kind even though
they are technically part of the non-rigid category. Hot air airships
are derived from traditional hot air balloons. Early models were almost
like balloons with an engine and tail fins added. Pretty soon envelopes
were lengthened and the tail-fins and rudder were pressurized by air from
the wash of the propeller. Newer hot air airships maintain their shape
with internal overpressure in the whole envelope, a feature which older
models did not have.
Q: Where does the term "Blimp" come from?
The popular story is that during World War II, a military general visited
one of the many airship stations operated by the U.S. Navy. Trying to find
out what material an airship was made from, he tapped his finger against
the fully pressurized envelope of a non-rigid Navy airship. The general
described the sound he heard, "blimp," and blimps have been called blimps
Q: Why do Airships Fly?
Why airships fly is explained by the Principle of Archimedes: "Bodies
submerged into a fluid receive from it a lifting force which is equal
to the mass of the displaced fluid." (This is the same principle that
explains why boats float on water.) The airship is filled with a lifting
gas (Hydrogen, Helium, hot air or natural gas). The air in which the
airship finds itself has a higher specific weight than the lifting gas.
The envelope filled with the light gas generates a lift that is equal
to the weight of the displaced air. Like a (light) kork floating in
(heavier) water, a helium or hydrogen filled balloon floats
in the heavier air.
Q: What is the Lift of Helium and Hot Air?
As a rule of thumb, 1 cubic meter of hydrogen lifts 1.1 kilogram,
1 m3 of helium lifts 1 kg and 1 m3 of hot air lifts 300 grams.
(In Anglo-American measures: 1000 cu. ft. of hot air lift a maximum of
20 lbs. and 1000 cu ft. of helium lift about 60 lb.) These figures
are on the safe side and allow for variations in altitude, temperature,
humidity and also purity of the helium.
Since the USA holds most of the natural Helium reserves worldwide it
is readily available in local welding supply stores there. Outside of North
America the situation varies. Usually it is specialized chemical companies
that carry helium in their program.
Q: Can I get a Ride on the Blimp?
The answer is usually NO. Despite all the modern technology used in
today's blimps they are cost effective only for advertising purposes.
In relatively small blimps, passenger transportation is not profitable
enough unless it is combined with an advertising mission. In the past,
the small number of blimp rides which is available has been given to
executives and clients of the advertisers/sponsors of the blimps.
Blimp rides were available in Las Vegas for ten months in 2000 (see
for images). Unfortunately, the blimp ride operation shut down in
Q: How do I become an Airship Pilot?
There is a special pilot licence that is required for airships. In the
USA the airship pilot rating was recently split into VFR (visual flight
rules) and IFR (instrument flight rules) since modern airships are now
able to fly under instrument flight conditions, i.e. at night or in the
clouds. As for any other pilots licence, a
special commercial rating has to be obtained for commercial flights.
Virtually all airship pilots are professionals employed by commercial
Regarding pilot training this means that unless you are willing to
become a professional pilot - or can buy a blimp, and even then -
opportunities for airship pilot training are very limited.
The few airship pilots I know had commercial twin engine ratings for
fixed wing aircraft before being hired to be trained as blimp pilots.
In anticipation of the eventual availability of formal airship
pilot training courses, I have started to compile the
Airship Pilot Life Stories.
They are a collection of accounts by several professional airship
pilots detailing how they got where they are today.
Q: I want to build an airship. Where do I start?
Unless you have several hundred thousand dollars to spend, you
should probably consider building a radio-controlled airship or a
manned hot air balloon instead. If the financial requirements do not
deter you, a book called "Building Gas Blimps - A Practical Guide to
Building Small Gas Blimps" by Robert J. Recks
will provide you with more detail. The book is available for
approximately US$80 directly from the author (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Q: Where can I find More Information?
You should make sure to read all the material in the
Airship and Blimp Resources
(www.MyAirship.com) because they contain information that goes far
beyond the scope of this simple Airship FAQ. For more Questions and
Answers you can also visit the
page on the website of the
(www.airship-association.org) in the UK. It answers other questions
about airships which you may have.