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I've started planning a turn-based tactics game in the world I'm building, and I'm thinking of making the focus be on an airship assault force. The idea here is a transplant of the Vietnam-era UH-1 to 1910-1920s Ireland for the following purposes:

  • Rapid response to various monster attacks;
  • Search and destroy missions;
  • Urgent casualty evacuation;
  • Demonstrating the leveraging of the latest technological innovation as an indicator of military readiness and efficiency.

As a rough guideline for what I have in mind, these airships are about the size of the NS class airship, but with enough room in the gondola to transport up to ten soldiers in addition to a crew of five. They're mainly transport aircraft, deployed with fighters to act as close air support.

Would airships actually be effective at the first three roles? If not, how could I make them more viable at this?

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    $\begingroup$ There a web serial based on airships airships.paulgazis.com you can learn a lot by reading that story. As a bonus, there are a lot of Lovecraft references. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Mar 15 '17 at 23:13
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Let's talk about each of your requirements one at a time and then draw a conclusion, shall we? (Note: all the following are assuming clear weather. Airships are not only a liability in foul weather but can actually endanger anyone nearby if they are driven into the ground.)

Rapid Response

With a top speed of just under 60 mph the NS-class was not exactly a hot rod. It was faster than a number of other vehicles of the same era, but not all, and relativity isn't everything. Airships are also somewhat lumbering and hulkish, so the deployment of troops onto the ground will leave the airship exposed. Lastly, airships are loud and easy to spot, so any element of surprise will be completely lost.

The one thing the airship has going for it in this application is that few other vehicles will be suitable toward rapid response. Those that could move fast enough were more limited in scope (trains have to follow rails and airplanes have to land in semi-specific places). As a result, the airship is potentially useful simply because nothing else can do this, even if the airship isn't exactly perfect for the job either.

Search and Destroy

While historically fixed-wing aircraft were employed most often as bombers, airships are not completely unknown to the concept. Airships could typically carry far more weight than an airplane, allowing for a bigger payload, but again the airship is lumbering and a veeery tempting target. It might be able to put the hurt on some poor sap on the ground, but it's a bit of a glass cannon; one good shot into the substantial gas bags will cause a leak and potentially ignite the hydrogen. Oh the humanity.

As a high-altitude spotting platform, however, things might be somewhat different. Artillery was the strategic weapon of choice during that era, and anything that could make it easier to deliver ordinance on target was useful. Consider this: an airship searches out its target but does not engage, instead signaling to a nearby relay post the exact position of the enemy. Artillery opens fire, and the airship can report success or failure, and how the artillery needs to adjust its fire. This could be a truly deadly tag team, though it still does leave the airship exposed (if it can see the enemy, the enemy can see it).

Evacuation

Depending on the situation, airships could be ideal for this application. In a hot-zone, the airship would be vulnerable, again because of how tempting a target it makes, but in a safer area the airship is better suited than an airplane since it can take off vertically and land almost anywhere there is flat-ish ground. It can also carry more passengers/cargo than a contemporary airplane so it opens up some interesting options. I can imagine an airship as a small mobile field hospital, capable of deploying faster than anything else of the era, or performing emergency airlifts to safety, whichever is needed.

Show of Force

Now here is where the airship shines, assuming your enemy does not learn of its obvious weaknesses (which is a big if). Airships are big, loud, and intimidating. They represent basically the pinnacle of engineering during your era, and unless the opponent gets wise, they should be suitably cowed. But we all know that already; they're just so damn cool.

Conclusions

So yeah, overall I can at least plausibly imagine an airship performing some of the above tasks. In bad weather or under enemy fire it would be tough-to-impossible to do anything, but in ideal circumstances things would be just fine. For your game that might actually be nice, since you never want something to be overpowered. Maybe the airship can perform a bunch of support/utility tasks, and can be countered by clever tactics and play.

Anyway, I hope I helped. Good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ The only reason to use the highly reactive hydrogen is due to shortages of the entirely superior helium. No more combustible doom bags. Also, assuming no baloon or gas fires, a holed airship will slowly leak, while an airplane is signuficantly more fragile. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 14 '17 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Andon You are right about the Helium, of course, but during that era Helium was so rare that the US airship Shenandoah carried a very significant portion of the entire world reserve of the stuff. When the Los Angeles was constructed later, it had to steal Helium from the Shenandoah because there was not enough available for both ships to operate simultaneously. Granted, these ships were like 6x the size of an NS-class, but it really speaks to just how rare Helium was at the time. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Mar 14 '17 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, absolutely. But if we're using airships willy-nilly, it wouldn't be terribly far fetched to say we had improved on getting helium. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 14 '17 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is set on the Atlantic coast, so the weather would be a problem. Would turning them into slower, fair-weather versions of the C-130 work better? $\endgroup$ – Philip Rowlands Mar 17 '17 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilipRowlands I think ultimately what you want is a fast moving VTOL aircraft with heavy lifting capability. VTOL is quite difficult to do on its own (you need lots of power), but there are things called Hybrid Airships which gain some of their lift from a lifting gas and part of their lift from wings or rotors or whatever. If you did this, you could potentially have a slow moving lifter with some flexibility. They would have STOL instead of VTOL, but for most cases that is fine. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Mar 27 '17 at 14:34
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There are several real-world reasons why airships were not used in WWI for helicopter-like air-assault missions.

  • Airships cannot actually hover, and cannot easily respond to changes in wind direction. Troop insertion may take longer - airships may take a long time to fly around and re-approach the Landing Zone after misjudging the wind.

  • Airships require a large ground crew and a large Landing Zone to land and extract the troops. The ship is not maneuverable near the ground - standard practice was for the ground crew to guy the airship within 50 ft of the ground. Unless those 10 or 15 ground crew soldiers on the last airship out after a raid can climb their 50-ft guy ropes, they are getting left behind. Not great for morale.

  • Airships are vulnerable to ground fire. Not combustion --most ground fire isn't incendiary-- but simply hundreds (thousands!) of rifle and machine-gun bullet holes through the gasbags will erode the buoyancy quickly. There's no reserve supply of gas on board (that would be heavy). Many WWI airships were burned by biplanes with incendiary bullets, but many others were brought down by simple loss of buoyancy from bullet holes.

Because of the fighter threat, airships usually operated at night. The ground fire threat kept them high -- often above the clouds. Remember: without reserve gas, changing altitude was a life-and-death decision. But flying high created new challenges:

  • Weather: WWI lacked basic weather forecasting and data that we take for granted. When German Airships set out to bomb England, they usually had no idea of the weather over their target only a few hundred miles away. More than one raid was cancelled by unexpected weather over the North Sea...with airships destroyed and crews lost by rather ordinary storms kicked up by routine weather fronts.

  • Navigation: No GPS, no LORAN, no radio navigation beacons. Zeppelins into the 1930s navigated by sextant. Clouds and blackouts and moonless nights made precision navigation impossible. More than one airship in WWI mistakenly bombed the wrong city entirely. Others mistakenly bombed small towns or farm fields. Airships that dropped low for a direction fix sometimes found newly night-capable fighters spiralling up to meet them in the darkness.

  • No Radio: Portable radios were still in the future. Airships could signal each other and the ground using old-school flags and heliographs and flares...during daylight only (no lights at night), and with a very low baud rate. No voice communications.

Between enemy fire and ordinary weather, an airship was not a safe place. Most airships were lost (often with all hands) before their tenth mission.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd find it plausible for trained soldiers to climb 50ft ropes. Especially with buddies at the top pulling the rope up. Aside from that, great observations, especially about navigation. It's something a lot of people (Including me!) don't think about. $\endgroup$ – Andon Mar 15 '17 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ It's also worth pointing out that soldiers can certainly descend 50ft ropes even if they can't get back up - that makes the airship useful in the same way that paratrooper-carrying aircraft were useful. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Oct 5 '17 at 23:33
  • $\begingroup$ @MattBowyer, sure. Airships are not accurate delivery vehicles. Missed LZs and time hacks leads nowhere good for everyone else in the operation. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 6 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ But still not that dissimilar from para-drop aircraft in WWII! I could certainly see them being of some use if fixed-wing aircraft aren't available. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Oct 6 '17 at 23:06
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The fact that no one during the airship era ever seriously considered that idea should tell you something about the feasibility of using an airship in the manner of a transport or attack helicopter. If you are looking for a plausible means of using airships in a military context, look at where airships have true advantages.

During this period, airplanes were rather small and fragile, and engines had low power to weight ratios. This limited the range and carrying capacity of aircraft, as well as how long they could stay aloft (loiter) over a particular area. An airship, by contrast, can be scaled to almost any arbitrary size to carry large payloads (either by mass or volume), and since the engines are not needed to lift the airship, engines of modest output are perfectly suitable.

Long range scouts for spotting was one of the primary duties of Naval airships, and both the Royal Naval Air Service and USN used blimps successfully as convoy escorts during both world wars, seeking out enemy submarines and surface raiders. The US Navy also experimented with using airships as aircraft carriers, the USS Macon carried six "Sparrowhawk" fighters, but in any realistic scenario the airship would be moving ahead of or on the flanks of the task force at sea and launching the small aircraft as observers.

The other task airships could perform might be as carriers to drop airborne forces by parachute. The airship would be large and comfortable enough to carry a fairly large number of infantrymen (aero-infantry was the terminology General Billy Mitchell used to describe the concept during WWI), and an airship would be moving much more slowly than a comparable aircraft, so jumping would be easier, and dispersion and other factors which make parachute insertion difficult would be reduced as well.

So if you adjust your expectations to reflect the reality of airship flight, and use the advantages airships had over early aircraft, then you could have a viable platform for military stories set in the era.

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For one thing, passengers are not limited to the gondola. They can use any space in the main body that isn't taken up with hydrogen/helium bladders.

Airships are not rapid anything but I guess that they could be considered rapid compared to anything other than a train at that time.

Search and destroy would work as long as stealth is not needed. Even with quiet engines, it takes up a lot of sky. Night missions drifting in with the wind would be best.

for casualty evacuation, it would do a decent job and it could act as a mini-hospital as well. A larger airship could be set up as a full sized mobile hospital.

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  • $\begingroup$ Rapid compared to anything other than a train? They had aircraft by then which could hit 60-70 mph (90-112kph). That's not much off what top airships can hit, Hindernburg only hit around 80mph (130kph) and that was in the 1930s. Using 1920s engines I doubt they'd be as quick as a plane. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Mar 14 '17 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Bellerophon, yes. Of course, what we consider rapid and what they would have considered rapid are two different things. The earlier aircraft engines were not very strong. According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeppelin in 1914, zeppelins reached 52mph. That's a lot of air to displace and in 1900 they were only able to make 6mph. I'd say that 35-45mph is a more likely top speed for 1910. According to cs.trains.com/trn/f/111/p/51027/646681.aspx an express train from that era could reach 60mph in optimal conditions but many were slower. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Mar 14 '17 at 23:17

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