Alright so the basics here are pretty simple. I want to have pirates, but in the sky, pretty much what you expected from the title there. BUT, and it is a big one, there is this little problem I keep running in to where my ships just will not float in the sky, no matter how many times I try explaining to them that pirates in the sky need to have ships in the sky. It is becoming quite frustrating. So, I decided to strap balloons and propeller/jet engines to my ships, which lifted some of them but others still won’t get with the program. So how can I fix this?

On a more serious note. I have thought of using some sort of super-dense cloud to give my ships more buoyancy, which would give the added bonus of the large ships only functioning when they are on one of these clouds, but I also want my planet to stay as earth-like as possible and I don’t know if that can happen with clouds like this. So my question is, how can I justify large, floating airships capable of carrying large payloads?

Here’s the details.

  1. The planet needs to be as close to earth-like as possible.
  2. The ships come in multiple sizes, shapes, masses, and are all held aloft by zeppelin-like balloons. (Think the game Guns of Icarus.) The size will range from a small attack craft (think a good size pontoon boat) to much larger ships (such as a ship-of-the-line). Each will be crewed by the appropriate amount of people, from 10 at minimum to a couple hundred, and attack will be done with firearms, flamethrowers, cannon, and the like. The ship must be able to carry the people, weapons, and enough supplies to stay in the air for about a week.
  3. The less handwaving necessary the better. If I can get away with having some natural phenomenon in the atmosphere cause this then that will be great. If I have to use some unobtainium then fine. Inventing new physics is iffy but doable. However, absolutely no magic needs to be involved.
  4. The tech level is kind of a steam-punk style 1700-1800’s BUT there is some really advanced tech lying around, it just can’t be reproduced yet.
  5. These ships need to be tougher and faster than real world ships, blowing up otherwise instantly being destroying if they are shot at is also to be avoided if possible. Some are designed to carry cargo, others a designed for pleasure, and some are designed for combat, which are the ones I’m focusing on for the purposes of this question.

I don’t need specific designs for each ship, just a way to make this idea work on the most earth-like world possible. Feel free to ask me to clarify any of these points or add any new information.

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    $\begingroup$ The super dense cloud idea won't work if the atmosphere at large isn't very heavy, since the clouds will just fall like anything else. Honestly, I would recommend just going with some central piece of anti-grav tech without getting into the technical weeds of how it supposedly works. People generally don't have problems swallowing a central isolated conceit, but if you try to string together a lot of questionable justifications that's going to stress suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ – Gene Aug 31 '18 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ That’s what I was thinking and why I was pretty sure that idea wouldn’t hold up. $\endgroup$ – Nick Aug 31 '18 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand your question. Why not simply "make it so?" What are you trying to justify? Are these wooden galleys or made of steel plates? What does the first paragraph have to do with the question? What's your actual failure here? (Sky pirates would be stealing from sky commerce, hasn't this been solved by someone else in your story already? What's everybody else doing to move cargo?) $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 31 '18 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ I could “make it so” and that be that, but the reason I posted the question is because I would like to have a solid reason for why a large airship could work on this world even though it would not work in reality. The first paragraph is the problem, basically just a more fun way of saying I really have no leads on how to explain this. Also the ships can be made out of any readily available material that was used in the time period mentioned. $\endgroup$ – Nick Aug 31 '18 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ Then lets start with missing details. (a) What is a "large payload?" (b) How large is your crew? (c) What are their preferred methods of attack/ambush? (d) How much armor do you envision for the pirates? (e) How maneuverable must the ships be? How much technobabble you need to justify your airships depends on how far off-norm your airships need to be. Let's define your airships and see how far off-norm they are. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 31 '18 at 17:48

Just have hot air balloons on a higher scale. Ships made with aluminum or steel plated wood, though cargo ships should basically be platforms suspended in the sky, since balloons get about a ton of lìft. If you have hotter air you can get more lift so research what you can actually use. Possibly a refined coal engine with a pure oxygen feed could be used, though that might melt anything you could build the engine with so uh, maybe research the best fuels to use. Also the best fabrics for the balloon cause that will also be a limiting factor, since depending on the material it may melt from the air temperature.

Also consider this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rozière_balloon

Most ships will need more than one balloon, and I recommending having the balloons segregated into eights. This will make them a little less efficient but will make them harder to shoot down.

  • More dense atmosphere, reducing the volume of balloon.

  • Widely available helium (from gas wells, or mixed in with oil): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium_production_in_the_United_States#Geology

  • Less widely available fossil fuels, to reduce viability of airplanes. See same link for how to get helium without hydrocarbons.

    • For more biological approach, have a breed of cows with increased methane production, and remarkably thin but strong hide (to make the balloon)

    • Weaker winds. Maybe something to do with axis tilt, or lack of major continents

    • shortage of aluminum and high-quality metal ore, to further stunt aircraft and combustion engines.

    • swampy or hilly terrain making railroads harder to construct


You could go two ways. The more realistic way with it just being a mostly normal zeppelin or blimp (be wary of the difference between the two!). Also be wary of the lifting gas and it's properties. Hydrogen can lift more than helium, but is flamable, whilst Helium isn't.

Alternatively, it might be smarter to use some anti-gravity tech or handwavium to enable looser constraints. The Hindenburg needed a massive envelope to lift what it did. If you use hanwavium you can get the battleship-esque warships and different kinds of designs than just the standard massive balloon look.

It also perhaps enables better control of the airship. Real life airships are often at the mercy of the winds, which can be annoying when you are trying to accurately drop payload and land/take off.

The main thing you need to look out for though are the weaponry available to counter them. Airplanes are problematic and AA guns are problematic, provided they're advanced enough. Airships could fy higher than early airplanes could fly and before the pilots got incendiary ammo their attacks didn't do much (Germans used the flammable hydrogen gas). The small bullets holes in the enveloppe really didn't do much.

AA guns are sort of straight-forward. If a single shell can seriously damage an airship then the airships will lose support quickly. Aircraft are cheaper and more agile. AA-guns are cheaper than an airship. In other words ensure that your world doesn't have any cheap counters to airships.

In the case of airplanes, maybe this could be attributed due to a fuel shortage. If your world doesn't have a way to cheaply obtain for example kerosene then airplanes will be too expensive to mass produce. Perhaps the arplane is simply not invented, because there's no real need for it. Perhaps they do exist, but only as specialized forces that are unlikely to realy endanger enemy airships.

That road would allow you to have parasite craft or 'carrier airships'.

AA guns could be solved by them lacking powerful enough propellant. Maybe their shells can't reach the enemy airships most of the time.

The main problem of airships isn't that they are bad at something, it's that other things are better at them. Planes are faster, boats can carry more,...

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    $\begingroup$ "Nitrogen can lift more than helium, but is flammable, whilst Helium isn't." - Is not true. Are you referencing Hydrogen? Nitrogen (N2) is a completely non-flammable gas. $\endgroup$ – jedmeyer Aug 31 '18 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ Nitrogen also makes up 80% of the atmosphere so it doesn't generate lift. He must mean hydrogen. $\endgroup$ – Clay Deitas Aug 31 '18 at 18:52

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