The urge to fly seems almost primal and “permeates most myths and religions.” In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci “produced more than 35,000 words and 500 sketches dealing with flying machines, the nature of air, and bird flight.”
In the United States, we pay tribute to the Wright brothers, who made the first successful airplane flight on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on 17 December 1903.
However, success came earlier in Europe. In 1852, Henri Giffard built the first successful airship, a hydrogen-filled blimp, in France. By 1897, Germany boasted the “first rigid airship, with a hull of aluminum sheeting.”
Unlike French airships, the German ships had a light framework of metal girders that protected a gas-filled interior. However, like Giffard’s airship, they were lifted by highly flammable hydrogen gas and vulnerable to explosion.
Like many technologies, the zeppelin became an instrument of war. In World War I, zeppelins “were used to bomb Paris and London. Airships were also used by the Allies during the war, chiefly for antisubmarine patrol.”
Then on 06 May 1937, the airship Hindenburg caught on fire and exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew-members. It was the largest rigid airship ever built.
Stretching 804 feet from stern to bow, it carried 36 passengers and crew of 61. While attempting to moor at Lakehurst, the airship suddenly burst into flames, probably after a spark ignited its hydrogen core. Rapidly falling 200 feet to the ground, the hull of the airship incinerated within seconds. Thirteen passengers, 21 crewmen, and 1 civilian member of the ground crew lost their lives, and most of the survivors suffered substantial injuries.
No rigid airships would survive World War II.