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In the scene of one of my stories, an airship gets hit by a violent storm. Apart from exploding (which isn't helpful to the main character), what other things could go wrong that would be fixable?

Most of the examples I can find online of airship problems almost always resulted in total disaster. Some thoughts I have are: fixing a rudder, hull damage that could be patched, or some other result of high turbulence or lightning. Perhaps a fire? This is an American airship, so it's using helium and isn't subject to igniting like the hydrogen airships.

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  • The outer skin of a zeppelin could start to rip. Someone would have to go on top to sew it up and stop the rip.
  • Internally, bracing struts might snap and need to be replaced.
  • Many airships had engine pods which were designed for in-flight maintenance.
  • Malfunctions might make it necessary to go to the ballast tanks and manually release them. (First image on this page).
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  • $\begingroup$ Marking this as the accepted answer because it describes some good, real-world examples of what could go wrong and provides some great links for further detail. This is extremely helpful and gives me what I need! I think my story can use a combination of some of these repairs. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Austin Mar 18 at 13:47
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A failure that's quite likely in a violent storm is damage to fins, rudders, or elevators. Presuming these are built similarly to what they were on the Zeppelins of the 1900-1940 era, turbulence could snap rudder cable, tear off guy attachments, fracture and buckle ribs or spars, even tear fabric covering.

None of these present a great danger of an immediate crash, just extra drama trying to control pitch by shifting fuel and water ballast, or steer with differential thrust (throttle up starboard engines, idle port side, to turn slowly to port). Even better, all are repairable without landing, at least to the extend of jury rigging something to restore limited control until the ship can land in a safe place.

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First, read: Airship R505

Here are some of the things that can go wrong:

  • Damaged engines
  • Damaged propellers
  • Leaking fuel
  • Damaged fuel lines
  • Leaking gas
  • Low gas and low ballast from maneuvers during the storm
  • Ripped gas bags
  • Damaged skin of the airship
  • Damaged control surfaces of the airship
  • Damaged cables going to said control surfaces
  • Damaged structural members (beams, supports)
  • Loss of the gondola
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The engine could break down. If your engine is a steam engine this could be anything from the fire going out to the boiler rupturing/exploding.

Also if the propellers are driven by chains (or similar) they might break. That might require someone to go outside to affix a new chain.

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    $\begingroup$ There's an answer here that talks about the USS Macon having landed safely after experiencing structural damage. How? Because the entire drivetrain still worked. Dead in the water is one thing. Dead in the air, is dead. +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 15 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ Is this based on any actual airships, or are you just giving us a word salad of random retro tech? $\endgroup$ – Harper Mar 16 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Harper All airships ran on combustion engines. ;-) However some (namely the two large US ships) had them inside the hull, allowing the gondolas to be much smaller, lowering their air resistance. So hey must have had a transmission belt or Cardan. $\endgroup$ – Karl Mar 17 at 14:37
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Loss of structural integrity in the inner truss system:

The USS Macon, a rigid airship of the US Navy, was badly damaged while transiting through mountains of Arizona. Among other failures, mechanical failures of the rigid truss structure were repaired in flight:

Following a severe drop, a diagonal girder in ring 17.5, which supported the forward fin attachment points, failed. Rapid damage control by Chief Boatswain's Mate Robert Davis repaired the girders before further failures could occur. The Macon completed the journey safely but the buckled ring and all four tailfins were judged to be in need of strengthening. (Wikipedia)

The failure of the Navy to heed advice and have design flaws mitigated lead to the crash of the airship Macon on February 12, 1935.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what other complications there might have been, but they both crashed due to bad weather. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 15 at 23:12
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Air Balloons

A zeppellin made of multiple tiny air balloons (with a bigger protection on top) might be more resistant to any event (bullets for instance, or a lightning/hailstorm in your case), because only a few ones will pop.

However, after an accident, the crew will have to repair/use new ones, and inflate them, then replace them.

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    $\begingroup$ A zeppelin's gas bags aren't pressurized (and they're rather large). Putting a bullet-sized hole in one will cause a slow leak that will need to be repaired sometime in the next few months. Putting an entire fighter airplane's-worth of machine-gun bullet holes in one will still only be a minor nuisance, as the British found out when they tried to shoot down German zeppelin bombers during World War I. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 15 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark The zepplins didn't start going down until the brits started using incendiary bullets. $\endgroup$ – Efialtes Mar 17 at 20:15
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Crew is incapacitated or dead.

New technology was installed in the control cabin. It was not appreciated that this new tech effectively bypassed the built-in lightning protection on the airship, allowing a channel for lightning to traverse the airship that took the charge right through the control cabin.

After the strike, the airship is fine but many crew members who were in the control cabin are dead from side splash charge and others badly hurt. The new tech is beyond repair but the airship is otherwise ok. Your protagonist can save one or two crew members s(he) finds in the control cabin, and then must pilot the ship.

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The book "Slide Rule" by Neville Shute documents exactly this happening to the R100 after it flew into a storm over the St. Lawrence river. They had crew members walk out on top of the ship and patch the damage while in flight.

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Volcanic ash can potentially a violent storm, and has the potential to damage/stall the engines

This is also what happened with British Airways Flight 9, where the airplane entered a volcanic cloud in the night, despite seeing nothing on their weather radar. After a while, the ash melted inside the engines, stalling them.

They eventually recovered their engines by flying low enough (and the usual turbulence shaking the solidified ash away), and repeated attempts of restarting, but 1 engine caught fire, so it had to be shut down again.

With a bit of creativity, this fits your definition of "repairable failure", as to repair the damage, they basically need to shutdown their engines (if they didn't stall already), decent below the ash cloud and "shake the engines up" to remove the ash (or make them fly though an patch of turbulent air)

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately for this scenario, airships use piston engines, not turbofans. Those will either be damaged beyond repair (if they don't have intake air filters) or essentially unaffected (if they do). $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 17 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark would enough of it block the filters though? $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Mar 18 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but swapping out the filter for a new one (or knocking the dust out of the old one) is a quick, easy procedure. For a classic airship with one mechanic per engine, I expect the total downtime to be under a minute -- quick enough that they probably won't bother notifying the control room. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 18 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ @mark But to swap out the air filter, you first need to get out of the storm (as the lungs of people don't like the dust filled atmosphere), something that is hard to do when you have no thrust $\endgroup$ – Ferrybig Mar 18 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ An airship typically has more than one engine: the Graf Zeppelin had five, the USS Akron had eight, the R100 had six. It's unlikely that all of them will fail at the same time, and even if they do, you don't need to leave the storm to change the filter. The engine gondolas of an airship are semi-sealed for aerodynamic purposes, and you can just put a scarf or something over your mouth to deal with what dust does get in. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 18 at 6:17
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Here's a proposition for a different sort of air ship:

Consider an airship that had a skin of foamed glass (density 10 lbs/cubic foot) Foamed glass is a pretty good insulator. Now generate your lift by controlling the temperature of the air.

This gives rise to a new failure mode -- lost of heater.

Note that if you have a craft propelled by internal combustion engines, the waste heat from the engine may be sufficient to provide lift.

Note that you need temperatures of about 270 C to get about the same lift as natural gas at the same temp and pressure.

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