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In my novel, an experimental airship needs to land in a field but it's in a foreign country where there was no coordination ahead of time to have people on the ground help tether it. Is is still possible for the crew to land it, and how would they go about doing so?

For clarification, this would be a fairly large rigid-body airship using helium and gas-powered engines for the propellors. The ship size and crew would just need to be big enough to cross the Atlantic safely (i.e. from New York to Spain and back.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Can any airship experts say if dropping anchors (that dig into the ground) is feasible? Or it has to be a mast? $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Aug 28 '19 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Seems to me an airship visited the North Pole in the 1930s, and did exactly that, but they didn't "land" so much as lower people to the ice. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Aug 28 '19 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ Actual historical airships were not designed to actually land, ever. They were intended to maintain neutral (or, sometimes, only very slightly negative) buoyancy after being inflated; when deflated they were intended to be hung in hangars. They did not "land", they "moored", operating just like sea ships, which are almost always afloat. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 28 '19 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ This exact problem actually occurred on May 14, 1926 at the fishing village of Teller, Alaska. The airship Norge, out of fuel after passing over the North Pole, drifted over the village heading into the Bering Sea. The Alaskan Inuits in the village below did not understand the shouted instructions in Norwegian and Italian. Nevertheless, one person on the ground realized what the lack of engine noise implied, and she marshalled the village to grab the ropes, bring down the craft, and save the crew. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Aug 28 '19 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ Technically a crash is still a landing $\endgroup$ – Trevor Aug 30 '19 at 3:52
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It seems to me that an airship could have one or more motors to travel normally and then a few more motors to use only when maneuvering to land or take off, motors that could turn widely to move the airship up, down, left, right, forward, back, as needed.

And possibly the airship could have harpoon guns to shoot harpoons deep into the ground and then the airship could winch the harpoon lines to take it up or down as desired. There would have to be some way to make the harpoons let go of the ground when the airship was ready to leave.

And possibly the airship could have several large drones and remote pilot them down to he ground to make connections. Each drone could carry a large screw and ring with a line attached. Each drone could have a device to mechanically screw the screw into the ground. When each of the rings was screwed in tightly the airship could winch the lines attached to the rings to lower itself.

I have read that early airships needed large ground crews where they landed to grab the lines lowered from the airships and use those lines to maneuver the airships to land. And I read that modern developments make the necessary ground crews much smaller. So possibly the airship could carry the necessary ground crew and lower them to the ground so they could help the airship land.

Some Zeppelins used for bombing in World War I had what were called "cloud cars". The Zeppelin would hid from defenders above a cloud bank and lower the cloud car through the cloud to clear air. The observer in the cloud car would phone instructions up to the zeppelin to reach their target.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the use of a "cloud car" in Hell's Angels (1930), but they were actually used. So an airship should be able to have devices to lower a small ground crew and equipment to the ground.

And an airship would normally have its helium in many smaller gasbags inside the main envelope of the airship. And possibly some of the helium could be sucked into smaller tanks where it would be more dense, while outside air was let into the spaces around the deflating gasbags. Depending on the situation, maybe some of the helium could be let out into the outside air and lost. Either way, the airship could gradually become heaver than air, helping it land.

Some combination of the above might be used by an advanced, futuristic airship. If you want a contemporary or futuristic airship, you should find an expert in how they operate.

And if you want an airship from the past in a story set in the past, you will have to find accounts of how they operated, and perhaps make a character a brilliant inventor who has a better method for landing airships.

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  • $\begingroup$ While all the answers were so creative and informative, I feel like this was the one that solved my problem because it gave numerous plausible solutions to the problem. Thanks SO much! $\endgroup$ – Austin Sep 10 '19 at 19:06
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Simplest one I can think of: a small gondola on a winch cable is used to lower a landing crew and collapsible mooring mast while the ship hovers (a headwind makes this work much better), then the ship circles while the crew assembles the mast and make ready to capture the ship.

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  • $\begingroup$ Given the size of a typical airship, I am not sure the mooring mast needs to be "collapsible" :) $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Aug 28 '19 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ If it's to be stiff enough not to flex excessively when it's tall enough to reach the nose and leave reasonable clearance under the gondola, it'll probably need to be compacted in some fashion. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Aug 28 '19 at 17:41
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Your airship could have one collapsible helium ballon inside the rigid structure, between two (or more) always-inflated ballons. If you want to go down, pump helium out of this balloon into canisters, letting air into the superstructure, thus making the airship heavier. Reverse to go up. Or you could make this balloon a hot-air balloon: Let hot air out to go down; turn up the heat to go up.

Besides allowing the airship to land on the ground (where it should be carfefully secured with mooring lines), it also allows changing altitude.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, yes, they did have ballonets. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 29 '19 at 8:25
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    $\begingroup$ Impossible to get a novel idea... :-) $\endgroup$ – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Aug 29 '19 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Amazon.com has many novels...... ;-) $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 2 '19 at 21:50
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One of the reasons for large ground crews with classical airships is the huge surface area makes them act like sails when close to the ground. You want to secure the length of the ship so it isn't being pushed or bent by the wind.

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USS Los Angeles having a bad day

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Ground crew

Now while it is technically possible to have harpoons or other forms of ground anchor carried on board, you need to consider that airships actually had very limited lifting capability. Even an airship the size of the Hindenburg could only lift about 80 tons, and this would include everything from fuel to paying passengers. If a significant amount of weight is included for landing devices, then the revenue carrying portion will suffer. By contrast, giant airliners can weigh 200 tons fully loaded with passengers or cargo.

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Size comparisons

Another consideration is that if the devices are rocket powered or fired by cannon, then there is also a risk of fire damage to the ship, and especially danger of destruction if the ship is filled with hydrogen (the Hindenburg had to use hydrogen because the US embargoed helium sales to foreign nations).

Perhaps the only way to make this work is if the engines are designed to pivot and allow the pilot to use direct thrust to climb or descend. While somewhat heavier and more complex than other systems, it is not as heavy as separate landing systems and provides more positive control over the airship than the classical systems of basalt and venting lift gas.

enter image description here

While not an airship, this Curtiss-Wright X-19 demonstrates the principles of using thrust vectoring propellers

So a classical airship with engines or engine gondolas designed for thrust vectoring by moving the propellers could have the ability to do controlled landings and take offs even in unprepared fields.

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Like sailing ships, an airship could drop several anchors to secure their position.

Unlike sailing ships, the anchors aren’t heavy. They could be either grapnels or spear-like. They could cabled and connected to winches and the hooked on trees, rocks, or fired into the ground.

Using two or more points, the airship could pull itself near enough to the ground that the aircrew could shimmy to the ground, and secure the vessel to the ground more permanently. The grapnels and spear-like things could be recovered since they were to temporarily stabilize airship during landing.

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