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The Hindenburg Incident was a very famous tragic part of history, much like the Titanic, but what would happen if the famous airship never burned? Would airships continue to be the dominant force of the sky and/or public fear of the airships never happened, as when the Hindenburg burned in our history, it heightened fears about the safety of riding airships?

I know that there is nothing preventing the invention of the airplane, and that from another Stack Exchange question, that managing airships were not the best economically, but to keep all that in mind, assume that airships got to stay for a while and some advancements have been made about them.

Thank you for the answers.

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    $\begingroup$ Kind of like how the Titanic tragedy made us stop using cruise ships? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Feb 19 '16 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ Well, sort of like that, but the cruise ships managed to be resilient even when Titanic sank, while airships just lost all their support. $\endgroup$ – Mr. Star Feb 19 '16 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ The card game Chrononauts has a timeline where you can flip easy-to-sway historical events ("linchpins") which cause major historical events ("ripplepoints") to be "paradoxed" (i.e. "Hitler was assassinated, so what happened in 1944? Nobody knows"). On these paradoxes you can then play "patches" to repair the timeline with new history. The 1937 "Hindenburg Explodes" linchpin paradoxes 1950's "Seoul Captured by North Korea" ripplepoint, which can be patched by "Zeppelin Factory Opened in Seoul: Withdrawal of US occupation forces from South Korea postponed (for reasons of National Security)." $\endgroup$ – CR Drost Feb 19 '16 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth saying that generally these kinds of questions are frowned upon. This one isn't closed as too broad mostly because it has very little affect. But if you were to go to other questions where history diverged from ours they are normally closed for being too broad, because there would be too many possible answers. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Feb 20 '16 at 4:53
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Honestly, I don't think it would be all that different than this reality.

The Hindenburg Disaster happened in 1937. World War Two started two years later. War often leads to technological innovation as each side tries to get the edge on their opponents, and World War Two saw amazing leaps in jet engine technology. The first flight by an airplane powered solely by jet engines took place on August 27, 1939. By the 1950s, almost all combat aircraft had moved from propellers to jet engines.

The question, then, boils down to "Would civilian aircraft make the transition from airship to airplane?". In all likelihood, yes. The Hindenburg's class of ships had a top speed of 81 miles per hour. A Boeing 747 has a top speed of 614 miles per hour. It's a much faster way to travel. Jet planes might have taken a bit longer to catch on so fully in the civilian sector if the airship era hadn't ended so suddenly, but it would have happened soon enough due to its efficiency.

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Airship use will still have died out.

The Hindenburg was not the deadliest airship accident (36 died). That happened four years earlier with the USS Akron when it crashed and killed 73 of the 76 people on board. The Hindenburg was just much more dramatic. It was the final tragedy in a string of tragedies that closed the age of airships.

The problem of using hydrogen as a lifting gas was burned into the psyche of the public. Even if the Hindenburg didn't burn, this problem would have needed to be addressed for safety concerns.

Luckily there is another lifting gas that works, though not as well, as hydrogen: helium. The problem with helium is it's relatively rare. As a noble gas, it binds with no one. This means the only place it's found, is trapped underground and in trace amounts in the upper atmosphere (it eventually escapes the Earth's grasp and floats off into space). In fact, we're running out of helium, and no one is really talking about it. The problem would have come much sooner with a booming airship industry. The vast majority of helium is in the United States and they don't like to export it.

So, to make safe airships, we need to use helium (or significantly more difficult alternate methods). But with so little available the industry would stagnate, and airplanes would be preferred. The decline would take a little longer, and their would be occasional use like there is today, but the industry wouldn't survive the gas shortage. It's also the reason it hasn't really started back up again.

In the future, if we figure out hydrogen fusion, we may have abundant sources of helium to use in safe airships. But until then, airships are grounded.

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  • $\begingroup$ One day, balloons will be less common. ); $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Feb 20 '16 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard something about a mix of hydrogen and helium that has most of the perks of helium, but a ligher weight. Unsure if it's true, however. Another, very diselpunk issue would be a vacuum dirigible. $\endgroup$ – Oleg Lobachev Oct 31 '17 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegLobachev A mix will work, yes. If you check the 'alternate methods' link in this answer your see some more about vacuum dirigibles. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Oct 31 '17 at 23:52
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Short answer is no, airships would still have died out without the Hindenburg tragedy. It was only the last in a long line of disasters reaching back to the First World War, where the fragile nature of rigid airships was exposed.

The biggest enemy of airships wasn't fire, but rather weather. An airship is quite fragile for its size, mostly because there is only a limited amount of aerostatics lift available for whatever volume of lifting gas you use, ad every extra ounce of structural weight in the airship reduces the amount of mass you can carry as payload. Suddenly encountering turbulence or storm fronts would be very bad for the airship, and airships generally had (or would have even today) low performance, so would have a difficult time getting away from bad flying weather.

This also translated into difficulty in ground handling. Airships on the ground are still lighter than air, but being attached to mooring masts or ground cables will become sails in any gusting wind. Controlling an airship on the ground is quite difficult and time and resource intensive, far more so than wheeling an airliner up to a terminal and having the passengers just walk on or off the airplane. Airships were easily damaged in ground handling accidents, which now means a very expensive asset needs to be repaired and is not available to earn revenue.

Finally, although airships were huge vehicles and required equally huge investments in infrastructure (look at illustrations of the airship hangers built during the 1930's, for example), their payload was actually quite limited. Airliners even of that time could be amortized much more quickly because they could carry more payloads per time period, and of course modern airliners can carry as much or more than any historical Zeppelin or rigid airship, and travel at high multiples of an airship's speed. Crossing the Atlantic in hours vs crossing in days is a winning business proposition for air transport.

Airships can still fulfill niche roles which would be difficult for other types of aircraft, such as the surveillance aerostats which can hover and "stare" at particular zones with sensors for periods measured in days or weeks. One can probably still make a case for larger versions of WWII era blimps for anti submarine patrols, or to fly over task forces and carrier groups to provide airborne sensor coverage for long periods of time, but obviously helicopters and fixed wing aircraft can do the job well enough, because there are no serious proposals that I am aware of for recreating blimps in these roles.

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Airships are simply lousy on economic grounds and would have been replaced by fixed wing aircraft in any case. The large area of an airship meant that adverse weather could easily result in being blown backwards! Operating any sort of reliable schedule would be impossible. (Unless they went for nuclear powered airships ... well they had nuclear rockets on the drawing board ...).

Today we could build a fairly safe airship using advanced polymers as gas bags. Methane provides less lift than hydrogen but is far less prone to leaking and (in low concentrations) exploding. It might work but nobody has any interest in trying. On a world where polymer technology was fifty years advanced but where the Wright brothers crashed and died... maybe.

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