by Brian Awehali

Mention blimps or, more properly, airships to people and you’ll normally get a bemused reaction: Oh, what an oddball topic! They rarely react as if airships or airship technology exists outside the distant past or whimsical present. But a new class of modern airships — part plane, part dirigible — might change that.

In the 1930s and 40s, passengers routinely flew via airship from Berlin to Rio De Janiero, crossing the span in just under three days. But following the spectacular Hindenburg disaster (a disaster some believe was the result of sabotage), and with the advent of jet engine technology, the popularity of airship travel plummeted.

Which is a shame, because it sure seems like there are a lot of reasons to reconsider jet travel as any kind of viable mass transportation system. Airborne jet-killing volcanic debris aside, the main reason to move away from jet travel is that it’s enormously polluting: A flight from San Francisco to New York puts 2-1/2 tons of CO2 per person into the air. Of course, the cost of that isn’t factored into the price of a plane ticket; if it were, none but the very wealthy could afford to fly. There would be no “commuter” jet travel.

All the same, jet travel is getting pricier these days, thanks mostly to rising fuel costs. And with that unlikely to change, sensible alternatives should be explored.

Enter the airship: Borne aloft by helium (not hydrogen), it requires comparatively modest amounts of energy for propulsion. From a mechanical engineering standpoint, fabrication of airships is vastly simpler; the technology is less specialized, and less expensive, than that of their winged counterparts. (In other words, there’s way less that could go mechanically wrong with an airship than with a jet.) And as for speed, well, would it really be so bad if it took three days instead of one to go from Berlin to Rio, or San Francisco to Australia?

Popular Mechanics published a fun piece about emerging airship technologies: large high-altitude winged airships that could carry hundreds of tons of cargo, powered by little more than the sun. The New York Times also recently published a roundtable discussion about alternatives to planes (“The New Age of Travel: Blimps and Beyond“).


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