Balloons, Blimps, and Helicopters
The Invention of the Hot Air Balloon
In 1783, two brothers from France named Montgolfier, became the first men to prove a hot-air balloon could fly. The first flight carried three passengers—a rooster, a duck, and a lamb. Though they were not harmed, a reporter on the scene said, "They were, to say the least, much astonished."
Later that year, two men flew 5 miles in 25 minutes; and ten days later went 25 miles in a hot-air balloon. In 1784, a manned hydrogen balloon rose to an altitude of 12,500ft—over two miles above the earth! In 1785, two men dared fly across the English Channel.
And so it was that fliers became famous and huge crowds began to turn out to see men fly.
"The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who . . . looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space . . . on the infinite highway of the air." ~ WILBER WRIGHT
Balloons and Airships
It did not take long for men to turn their thoughts to the military implications of flying. Air balloons were used in the American Civil War as observation platforms. Air balloons were then used to carry messages during the Franco-Prussian War.
The problem with balloons was that a huge balloon was required to carry very little weight; and they were at the complete mercy of the winds. Frenchman Henri Giffard flew the first powered balloon in 1852. Powered by a steam-driven propeller, it flew 17 miles at about 6mph. Since it was shaped like a cigar, it was not called a balloon but a dirigible. Two more Frenchmen then flew an electric-powered dirigible at 12mph in the 1880s.
Finally in 1898, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a rich Brazilian living in Paris, built and flew dirigibles powered by internal combustion engines. They were now called airships. Two years later, Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin flew the first German airship.
Dirigibles and Zeppelins
Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917) was a German cavalry officer until he was in his fifties. He visited the United States during its Civil War and witnessed the use of airships for reconnaissance. In the 1890s he used his own fortune to develop rigid dirigibles. Before he died, he saw them used as bombers in World War One.
In Germany, rigid hydrogen airships—named Zeppelins after their creator—became national icons by the 1910s. Though Led Zeppelins will not fly, Ferdinand Zeppelin used new aluminum alloys that were as strong as steel but 1/3 the weight.
Zeppelins were hard to handle on the ground and very expensive to build. The first Zeppelin was a 420ft long giant. One day they would be twice that length. In 1910 passenger service began. They could fly for eight hours and carry 14 tons at 50mph by 1914. Before the war started, 37,000 people had flown on Zeppelins in sight-seeing excursions.
In the First World War, the Germans used the Zeppelin as a stealth weapon to attack Paris first, and then their ultimate target: London. On a moonless night, they could sneak into enemy territory undetected.
At first, the men on the Zeppelins dropped firebombs over the side. They had little control over where the bombs landed.
On one night in 1916, 16 of the airships bombed London. This made a deep impression on the British civilians, who were terrified at this new weapon in the air.
One Zeppelin would become the first airship ever in the world to be shot down out of the sky—by a British airplane. The pilot, Leefe Robinson, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his feat. As the British made strides in nighttime flying of military airplanes, the idea of traveling to London under a vast bag of inflammable gas lost its appeal.
Still, Zeppelins reached many milestones. In one raid over London, a Zeppelin killed 22 civilians and wounded 87 others. These airships set records in 1917, flying 4,200 miles non-stop; and reaching an altitude of 24,000ft.
The Graf Zeppelin
In 1928, the German airship Graf Zeppelin carried 20 passengers safely across the Atlantic Ocean. The Graf Zeppelin was like an ocean liner as far as creature comforts go, with luxurious private rooms and a formal dining room with gourmet food. And the view was breathtaking. Surely this was the future of long-distance travel.
The Graf Zeppelin logged 590 flights before she retired, making her the most successful airship ever. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world in 21 days. One leg of the journey, from Germany to Japan, covered 7,000 miles non-stop. Only the rich could fly on such an airship. A roundtrip across the Atlantic cost as much as an average house.
The mighty Hindenburg was the largest man-made object to ever fly. It took a crew of 60 to man her. She carried 72 passengers. In May of 1937, the fiery end of the Hindenburg marked the end of Zeppelins.
The Hindenburg was launched in 1936, complete with huge swastikas. It carried 72 passengers at 80mph powered by four 1,100hp diesel engines. And it was filled with hydrogen.
The Hindenburg had made ten trans-Atlantic voyages in 1936. On the afternoon of May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg wafted over Manhattan as strollers on the streets looked up at it. But when she attempted to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Hindenburg burst into flames.
Within 34 seconds, all that remained was a glowing, red-hot skeleton. Amazingly, 62 of the 97 souls on board survived, though many were badly burned.
The Birth of the Blimp
Of the 161 hydrogen airships built, 60 came to bad ends.
In 1923, the American Goodyear Company had formed a joint corporation with the Zeppelin Company of Germany and had purchased its patents. The Americans had realized early on that hydrogen was simply too dangerous. They wanted to use Helium instead, which is not flammable. But Helium was a rare gas that was only to be found in Texas, which the Americans refused to sell to Nazi Germany.
Eventually, the Americans took over the building of airships and renamed them blimps.
The History of Helicopters
Igor Sikorsky said that "the idea of a vehicle that could lift itself vertically from the ground and hover motionless in the air was probably born at the same time that man first dreamed of flying."
Paul Cornu of France was the first man to build a helicopter that briefly got off the ground in 1907. The chief problem with designing a helicopter was how to control it. The torque generated by a rotating blade would make an aircraft spin the opposite direction of the blade. Additionally, how could a helicopter be made that would rise or fall, hover, change direction, and move backward or forward?
Many men contributed to the development of the helicopter. The Russian Boris Yuriev proved in 1912 that the torque problem could be overcome by a small vertical propeller mounted on the tail. Raul Pateras de Pescara of Argentina figured out how to vary the pitch of each blade to make a helicopter tilt in various directions.
Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva invented the first rotary-wing aircaft in the 1920s, dubbed the autogiro. In 1928, one of his inventions crossed the English Channel .
Louis Breguet of France created perhaps the first real helicopter. But it was the German Heinrich Focke who is recognized as the inventor of the helicopter, with his Fa 61, first flown in 1936. In 1939, Igor Sikorsky produced the best helicopter yet, the VS-300. Sikorsky envisioned a world in which the helicopter replaced the automobile as the common mode of transportation for mankind.
In 1947, the American Bell 47 became the first helicopter in the world licensed for civilian use.
By the 1960s, the Chinook helicopter became the workhorse of the American military in Vietnam. 2,000 of the Bell Huey helicopters were also used during that conflict. It is from the Vietnam War that the use of helicopters to evacuate wounded men was first realized. Today, this is a feature of American civilian life. And the rest, as they say, is history.
My source for this article is Flight: the Complete History by R. G. Grant
I must add a personal note. My father has been flying airplanes since 1960. He started with a little 2-seat Cessna but now flies John Travolta and his family around the world in a Falcon 50 luxury jet.
I have never flown in a hot-air balloon, a blimp, nor a helicopter; because when I was yet a wee boy my Daddy told me, "Son, if it doesn't have wings, don't get on it."