The Hindenburg was a massive failure in blimps, it practically banished them from the skies, it didn't matter that events such as the Hindenburg disaster were not as common as plane crashes today or that a whooping 2/3 of passengers and crew survived it. The shear terror of the fiery steel skeleton caused so much fear that it was scrapped.

What events could (around two or three preferably) I change or add to the history to not only keep airships in use but also have them used on par with airplanes? The only requirement is that the changes must occur in the years 1750-2000.

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    $\begingroup$ "not as common as plane crashes today" You really need to quantify that statement in a meaningful way. Obviously there are many, many more plane flights today than there were Zeppelin flights back then, so it's not surprising that there are more plane accidents. What really matters for comparing safety is accidents per flight or casualties per passenger mile or something along those lines. $\endgroup$
    – Hackworth
    Mar 3, 2016 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ IIRC, the biggest strike against lighter than air flight was the effect that the hindenburg had on the public consciousness. if you only changed that, it would be pretty plausible for us to still use zeppelins. $\endgroup$ Mar 3, 2016 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this a duplicate of worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/36438/15281. Even if it's not most of the answers there are valuable since they essentially point out that the Hindenburg event wasn't the reason Zeppelins stopped being used and so list the negative points that have to be overcome, most of which SF's answer picks up $\endgroup$
    – christutty
    Mar 4, 2016 at 10:08

6 Answers 6


1) High availability of helium. O.M. is right, helium is a very scarce resource and only due to huge reserve produced over a very long time when the demand was minuscule it's as cheap as it is - if the reserve didn't exist and we'd only have current production for current use, a common small kid's helium-filled balloon would cost something of order of $30 to fill. Even today, with the reserve, the price is prohibitive when it comes to filling blimps.

2) Way faster development of plastics. In WWII Germany blimps caused a total crisis on accessibility of cow leather - almost all of leather production went to the balloons/blimps. A polymer coating would cost a tiny fraction of that and be far easier to build, immensely reducing the price and difficulty.

3) A speedier space program = satellites sooner in space = enormous jump in the quality of meteorological forecasts. Blimps are still at mercy of winds.

4) Better electric propulsion sooner. At least Li-Ion batteries. Cheap, light solar power would be welcome too. The primary advantage of blimps over airplanes could be the cost of operation, and that would necessitate cheap, light propulsion.

They wouldn't entirely replace airplanes - airplanes would still be used for fast travel when time, maneuverability and payload:size ratio matters. But blimps could replace long-distance trucks, freighters, sea liners, possibly "economy class" passenger airplanes. The price to operate a large fleet of blimps would be significantly lower than the price of operating a comparable fleet of airplanes, so despite all the disadvantages, they could be used for travel less expensive than airplanes.

One way to get that cheap helium: Fusion. We got a tokamak/stellator working, and it can produce more energy than it consumes, albeit not much more. Fusion power plants sprout everywhere, enormous amounts of hydrogen (from water) are converted into helium, the power plans consume most of the power they generate to sustain themselves, but they produce some surplus - and helium is the byproduct.

(the power plants can't be TOO efficient - because there simply is no economical justification to producing this huge amount of energy - the demand dictates the size of the market, with market saturating faster there would be less fusion power plants, and as result less helium produced.)

  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious as to the source of your comment that "The price to operate a large fleet of blimps would be significantly lower than the price of operating a comparable fleet of airplanes" since the blimps seem to have larger costs in terms of speed and ease of landing, storage building size, ground-based manpower costs, etc. Is this based on fuel costs? $\endgroup$
    – christutty
    Mar 4, 2016 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ @christutty: They can operate on electricity, which makes fuel non-issue (meanwhile fuel in airplanes is a huge thing), they don't actually require as much infrastructure for landing as airplanes, ground-based manpower is considerable per airport, but not per blimp (thus large fleet), and there's a lot of room for automating a lot of these jobs. They are also easier to operate. And with efficient compressors and flexible cover they absolutely don't need huge ground infrastructure as one can be neatly folded for ground transport with helium stored in pressurized containers. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Mar 4, 2016 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ Notice how we're no longer talking about stiff leather on firm metal/wood scaffolding, we're talking about actual balloons, where gas pressure and some elastic elements (straps) maintain the shape. Helium can be pumped in or out to affect the buoyancy losslessly too. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Mar 4, 2016 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ thanks for that, your comments agree with the links I was looking at and included below where several companies seem to be looking at commercial operation in the same area you talk about (heavy-haul to areas with little existing ground infrastructure) $\endgroup$
    – christutty
    Mar 4, 2016 at 12:23

Not a Zeppelin, but Hybrid Airships

Something like this was seriously considered during the energy crisis of the 1970's and the idea resurfaces from time to time. John McPhee recounts the story of the Aereon Airship company of Trenton New Jersy in the "Deltoid Pumpkin Seed", where the intrepid inventors develop a hybrid airship design. The lift was to be distributed between the lifting gas inside the envelope, and the shape of the envelope itself, which was to be a wingless "lifting body" capable of aerodynamic lift in forward flight.

Aereon airship prototype

This would have allowed for a much smaller engine, and the ability to take off and land at very low speed from very small runways. Unlike a conventional aerostat (Zeppelin, blimp or balloon), it would not be positively buoyant on the ground, meaning it was less vulnerable to being destroyed on the ground by errant winds. Sadly, the company was unable to progress beyond a single flying prototype, and ran out of money.

The latest version of this idea is SolarShip, a Canadian company which has the added twist of covering the upper surface with solar cells to provide energy for the engine. Like Aereon, it has flown at least one prototype, but details of any subsequent work is lacking



While the prototypes are obviously small proof of concept vehicles, Aereon had conceptual designs that would carry giant payloads, and SolarShip has conceptual designs that can carry the equivalent of a C-130 sized payload (roughly 30 tons).

The main reason that these ideas have not taken off (so to speak) is they are much slower than conventional aircraft, so amortizing their cost will take much longer (a conventional aircraft can carry much more and much faster than a Hybrid Airship). It is quite likely that the large surface area and lightweight structure will also make these airships more vulnerable to weather than regular aircraft (although less so than a Zeppelin).

Hybrid airships will most likely fulfill niche roles where low speed and high fuel economy are important. Naval escorts flying slowly over carrier battle groups bristling with sensors is one possible role, and a flying cruise ship carrying a few dozen passengers in super luxury conditions might be another.


First off, you are incorrect as to your analysis of the Hindenburg. Not only was it not a blimp (it's a rigid airship, not to mention the Navy's 100+ sized fleet of blimps during World War Two to spot submarines), but the crash of the Akron, the explosion of the Dixmude, and the crash of the R101 were all far worse accidents (and the Hindenburg made 60+ flights over its lifetime). They all happened before the Hindenburg even flew once. Yet they kept building them. Not only that, but Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built another Hindenburg-class Zeppelin, called the Graf Zeppelin (even though another Zeppelin with that name already existed). And even beyond that, another Zeppelin, even larger, was under construction when World War Two started. The two Graf Zeppelins and the under construction LZ-131 were all scrapped by the Nazis for war material.

So, what killed the Zeppelin? Well, let's go back. Back to the past. How far? About a hundred years. World War One was, arguably, the golden age of the Zeppelins, with over 100 built in a span of just four years. But at the end, the Zeppelins weren't all that effective as bombers. Even so, the Treaty of Versailles essentially killed the German airship industry. Despite that, two more Zeppelins were built right after the war. LZ 120 "Bodensee" and LZ 121 "Nordstern," both of which were seized by the Allies. However, LZ 120 managed to operate for a decent amount of time, and despite its short timeframe of operation, it transported over two thousand people across Europe. Pretty good, if you ask me. But what really killed the Zeppelin? It wasn't the Hindenburg, the Dixmude, the R101 (although that did kill British airships), or the Akron (which was succeeded by the Macon, both the Akron and the Macon were flying aircraft carriers, btw). What killed the Zeppelin was The Treaty of Versailles, the Nazis, and World War Two.

The Treaty of Versailles essentially demanded the dismantling of the German airship industry. After the LZ 121 was seized, no new Zeppelins until LZ 126, later the USS Los Angeles after being handed over to the USA, were built. Had Germany been able to keep their airship fleet and refit them for airline service, as well as introduce LZ 120 and LZ 121 in peace, a fairly healthy Zeppelin airline would've likely been in operation throughout the 1920s, perhaps stretching into the 1930s with the introduction of the Hindenburg-class ships perhaps occurring slightly earlier.

But, let's assume that even this optimal situation does not occur.

The Nazis. Always ruining our fun. After the Hindenburg disaster, the Zeppelin company was able to appeal to the US to get access to Helium. There was more than enough, and due to its rarity venting it would be out of the question (many hydrogen filled airships vented lifting gas as they burned their fuel). As such, a one time shipment would be all, save for the small possibility of loss from leaks and other potential problems. And, just as the US was about to give the Helium over (under the condition that it be used only for civilian purposes), the Nazis began an aggressive annexation of Austria. The US thus refused to supply the necessary Helium that the Zeppelins needed to continue commercial operations. Even so, the second Hindenburg-class ship, LZ 130, made 30 flights (none were for commercial purposes) before it was scrapped.

World War Two changed just about everything. Beyond the Zeppelins being scrapped, the war provided an enormous impetus to develop long ranged bombers and troop transports. As such, the new DC-3 was built in such huge numbers that after the war it flooded the market for airliners. The massive increase in aviation technology as a result of World War Two made Zeppelins irrelevant for passenger carrying purposes.

So what are we left with? Well, we have a few options to make Zeppelins grace our skies once more.

Option 1: Change World War One or the Treaty of Versailles. Doing this would probably enable the Zeppelin industry to flourish, perhaps over one thousand rigid airships could be in service by 1940? Sounds like much, but if they could build 25 per year in Germany alone...

Option 2: Change other rigid airship accidents as well as the Hindenburg. The Dixmude, the Akron, the R101. Remember, the R101 was the accident that killed the British airship program. If those accidents didn't happen, rigid airships may still grace our skies. Not all of them would be Zeppelins, but even so...

Option 3: The Nazis do not come to power. This may actually make construction of the Hindenburg impossible, but no one really minds a little bit of handwaving. Or maybe leave the Nazis, but delay World War Two or perhaps make it never happen.

Option 4: Airplanes are never invented. With no competition due to the nonexistence of dynamic lift vehicles, static lift(airships, balloons) is the only option.

Option 5: Handwavium. Basically some miracle material that reduces an object's weight. Would also create interesting airplanes.

Option 6: Some sort of combination of the above, or something you come up with.

All of this is available on the internet, although do be wary, LZ 120 was the designation of another Zeppelin. There are some weird things involving Zeppelins, but until World War Two, Zeppelins were the most capable aircraft in the world. Capable of non-stop flight across the Atlantic, carrying tons of payload, or, even during World War One, later on in the war they had designs which could carry 3 metric tons of bombs, rivalled only by bombers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Almost 20 or 30 years earlier.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! This is, quite simply, a brilliant answer :) $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2017 at 22:25
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    – Secespitus
    Sep 5, 2017 at 7:15
  • Easy availability of helium rather than hydrogen. Part of the problem was the strategic reserve of the largest producer.
  • An established infrastructure of docks on skyscrapers in the center of metropolitan areas. Legal precedents that say when there is a dock on the highest building in town, nobody is allowed to build higher in the flight path.
  • No WWII, no war scare, and perhaps airships will compete with something like the Ford Trimotor rather than the DC-2.

Come up with pretty much any reason for fossil fuels to have become incredibly scarce, and the fuel efficiency of lighter-than-air transport would have tipped the scales towards blimps over traditional aircraft.

Say.... what if WWII had gone on a bit longer, gone nuclear, and made all of the middle eastern reserves glow?


Some of the current commercial designs - http://news.discovery.com/autos/military-vehicles/massive-airship-flying-start-130205.htm and http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-an-airship-the-size-of-a-football-field-could-revolutionize-air-travel-180950007/?no-ist - focus on the ability to carry a heavy payload without needing a landing field. This effectively makes them more fuel-efficient long haul helicopters with the disadvantage that they're slower.

I think if you wanted an event to drive this change you need a high-profile rescue or relief effort that uses airships to either deliver resources to a remote area with rough terrain, rescue people from the same problem, or both. This requires airships to be available so the linked commercial efforts are a prerequisite but a high-profile positive event would drive funding into their development and could allow them to have become mainstream decades ago.

Another possible event is something that grounded planes and helicopters but didn't prevent airships from flying. I'm having trouble coming up with something since events such as volcanic eruptions would also clog the engines powering airships so while they wouldn't have to land they also wouldn't be able to manoeuvre. They still might be effective enough that a wide-spread simultaneous chain of volcanic eruptions makes airships the only viable way to get supplies into affected areas (perhaps heavy ash drop makes roads and railroads impassible?) and airship tickets the only way out.

You also really want that event or disaster to have an extended timeframe so that it's sensible to rush-build a fleet of airships to meet the problem. This fleet then continues to be used after the disaster, providing economies of scale for the growth of an industry around them.


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