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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Stairway to Zeppelin

Your time is gonna come

In 1937 the age of the airship came crashing down in flames upon Maxfield Field, a stone’s throw from the Lakehurst Naval base. The Hindenburg, a 245-metre Zeppelin carrying 36 passengers and 61 crew was hovering almost 100 metres above its final destination when it violently combusted.

The rigid airships were no stranger to adversity. The complete idea of them is bizarre: a giant frame of light metal suspending envelopes of highly flammable gas atop engines burning diesel. Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right?

At the turn of the 20th Century the idea of lighter-than-air flying didn’t sound as silly as what we now think of conventional aeroplanes.

In many ways the impressive rigid airships—or zeppelins—of the 1920s and 1930s were engineering and ecologically sound examples of human technology. Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, which require constant forward motion through the air, zeppelins don’t need to expend massive amounts of fuel and energy to maintain altitude.

When Salient called BOC Gas, a standard price of $854 +GST was given for 8.25m³ of Helium and a price of $124.85 + GST was given for 6.48m³ of Hydrogen.

There are many factors which swing in favour of one of the other of the gases. Helium has traditionally been the logical choice for lighter-than-air craft because it is totally inert. However, there is one major factor which counts against the use of Helium: we’re running out. Wired magazine reported late last year that within 25 years the Earth’s supply of helium, mainly sourced from the United States and Algeria, will be exhausted.

In a resource-scarce world the volatile choice of hydrogen is easy, as it is all around us: H20. The net cost isn’t that much as it can easily be produced.

Monbiot wrote in 2008 that the environmental cost of an airship is 80–90 percent less than that of a standard passenger jet and says, “travelling by airship would be rather like travelling by cruise ship, but at twice the speed and using a fraction of the fuel.”

Dazed and confused

The British had a plan to bring zeppelins to New Zealand, called the Imperial Airship Scheme. In 1924 the idea of aeroplanes being used as passenger transport across vast distances was laughable. Building upon work done by the British Navy, the UK set about building airships and trialing routes, progressively going further with actual flights going as far as India by 1930 and plans to go as far as Australia by 1936. A change of heart in the Cabinet was the death knell for the scheme, which was officially dumped in 1931. So close, yet so far away.

Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson Bill Sommer says that New Zealand has never had any rigid lighter-than-air craft. “I believe that New Zealand may have been visited by a US Navy airship in the late 1930s to early 1940s, but I am not aware of any airships having ever been registered in New Zealand.”

Given that most JetStar customers will arrive at their destinations on the same timeframe if they take a zeppelin or one of their planes, it’s not such a silly idea. A spokesperson for Air New Zealand had other ideas about answering Salient’s questions, saying “Air New Zealand has never operated them, nor do we have any current plans to.” The reply came with a whole lot of media-enviro-spin which, although making positive reading, does not get us any closer to finding out whether we’re going to have zeppelins in New Zealand. This is summarised by Monbiot, who said: “While the price of carbon stays low, companies have no financial incentive to switch to a different form of transport.”

Wellington Airport’s future upgrade to the hideous pumpkin-shaped buildings does not seem to include plans to service zeppelins. However, those with strong ecological consciousness will be pleased to know that the design is environmentally sustainable and will use many energy-saving features, a low velocity thermal plant and using ramps instead of escalators and lifts where possible.

But does this mean Wellington’s skies will be devoid of zeppelins? Maybe some lateral thinking is needed. An obvious docking point is the Majestic Centre. It is the tallest spire in Wellington, and the sight of a 200 metre long dirigible docked almost even with the university’s skyline is an exciting prospect.

Sommer points out that “landing any aircraft at Wellington in moderate to strong winds has been described by some experienced and knowledgeable pilots as ‘character building’.

“I would suggest, and no one would even attempt to takeoff or land an airship in such conditions, and trying to handle such a machine on the ground in other than light wind conditions would be next to impossible.”

Out on the tiles

Obviously the climatological conditions of New Zealand are the biggest barrier to their use. Wellington’s wind in particular would cause problems for zeppelins and there would be few places to dock, service or even store zeppelins.

NIWA’s principal scientist and Group Manager of Meteorology and Remote Sensing Dr Michael Revell is sure that zeppelins are unlikely to work well in New Zealand conditions. “These types of craft require relatively calm conditions (like hot air ballooning) and New Zealand, because of its steep mountains and location in the strong westerly belt, is not generally in calm conditions. Certainly not like continental areas of Europe, Africa or America. This is because unless you have a very powerful propulsion system the craft will tend to move with the wind.”

Dr Revell highlighted another factor that puts the use of zeppelins in New Zealand in doubt. “You need a very big craft to carry a relatively small payload compared to a conventional aircraft, which puts it more at the mercy of the wind.”

Sommer concludes “They are without doubt more environmentally friendly than most if not all modern aircraft, since their engines would be used for control and propulsion, and not providing lift. However, it’s a matter of whether it is practical to use them in our conditions.”

So while New Zealand zeppelin enthusiasts may dream about silvery bulging cigars floating through our pristine vistas, the reality is that our conditions stop this dream from being fulfilled.

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About the Author ()

The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

Comments (2)

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  1. T.T says:

    The environment is quite clearly ‘Wearing and Tearing’, so what about the ‘Ozone Baby’? ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ in ‘The Ocean’ they still cry ‘The Rain Song’, but ‘How Many More Times’ do we have to piss around until the ‘Dancing Days’ are here again? So I say to you, don’t ‘Ramble On’, because ‘When The Levee Breaks’ ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’.

  2. Jackson Wood says:

    If you enjoyed this article you should go ahead and join the New Zealand Zeppelin Appreciation People (ZAP) http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=100781487263&ref=ts

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