Yet another airship question.

We now all know that it would be impossible to build an airship of any practical size or effectiveness before the 19th century, and that once a civilisation is advanced enough to build airships, they are also advanced enough be able to build airplanes which, after a brief experimental period, will soon surpass airships in every aspect.

However, there were a few decades at the beginning of the 20th century, where airships were a viable alternative to airplanes, airplanes at that time being fragile rickety wooden and canvas contraptions barely able to fly from London to Paris with plenty of stops in-between. This time period lasted only a decade or two, and then airplanes became practical enough to almost completely displace airships.

How could we significantly extend this time period, with the fewest possible changes? What technologies could be developed in different order, to make the era of airships last much longer? I would guess at least a little different technological progress would be mandatory, single events (such as the Hindenburg not crashing) would not have enough effect.

I'm not looking for airships having a somewhat larger role today than they have, I'm looking for airships to be practically the only significant flying machine available, with complete dominance over those almost useless heavier than air curiosities.

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    $\begingroup$ Shortage of fuel run the airships on something else rather than oil, and then get rid of oil? Muscle powered perhaps,a bunch of people on exercycles provide the motive power. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 30 '17 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ A bit farfetched perhaps, but if people didn't understand the significance of the aerofoil, then they wouldn't invent wings that would actually work, althpugh these are used to a lesser extent on airships as well, something else could be used instead. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 30 '17 at 12:05
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    $\begingroup$ But airplanes DON'T surpass airships in every respect. There are many ways in which they are superior: comfort, noise levels, the abilty to hover or travel at very low speeds.... The single factor which would extend the airship age would be (as explained in the answer by Lio Elbammalf) for the US to sell helium to Germany. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 30 '17 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ Many advances in the technology of civilan transport aircraft were made in the U.S.A., where fast and affordable very long distance passenger transport was perceived as a stringent necessity. The U.S.A. was only minimally involved in WW1; the Douglas DC-3, introduced in 1936, before WW2, was so much better at moving people around that all hopes of lighter-than-air fans were crushed. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 30 '17 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ Use the considerable power of fear to your advantage: crash a few airplanes in well-publicized incidents, and you'll have the public clamoring for safety from the "flying coffins." If you can follow Lio's advice and avoid the Hindenburg disaster, so much the better. $\endgroup$ – George Cummins May 1 '17 at 18:31

10 Answers 10


No Hindenburg disaster - I'm aware this isn't enough alone but it is key

One of the largest influences on the decline of airships was the publicity of the Hindenburg disaster. A mixture of imagery and quick reports made confidence in airships plummet.

The disaster was the subject of spectacular newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison's recorded radio eyewitness reports from the landing field, which were broadcast the next day. A variety of hypotheses have been put forward for both the cause of ignition and the initial fuel for the ensuing fire. The incident shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the abrupt end of the airship era.

Hindenburg Disaster

There are so many things that went into this that I couldn't possibly name them all but here are two that I think are important:

  • The US was holding onto a vast majority of the helium reserves unwilling to export this much less flammable alternative due to concerns that it may be used in military action against them and their allies. After the Hindenburg disaster this was repealed to allow exports for non-military use.

    • Whether the accident would still have happened or the death-toll been so high we cannot say, but the pictures definitely wouldn't have been so dramatic.
  • If the news hadn't been quite so sensationalist (or even just been unable to photograph the event) then public opinion wouldn't have dropped quite so much.

    • There had been many more disasters worse than the Hindenburg but the lack of coverage had meant these largely passed under the public's radar.

My suggestion would be to have the US allow the Hindenburg to use helium instead.

But that isn't enough, so what else?

Public opinion of airships is still at a high but the development of aeroplane really took off (sorry) during the second world war and their efficiency would phase out airships eventually. Aeroplanes are much better in terms of:

  • Speed - An airship can reach max velocities of ~100mph
  • Handling - It takes a long time to turn an airship compared to an aeroplane.
  • Payload to size ratio is much lower - You need a huge ship to carry the same bombs across.

This means you're presenting a large slow moving target to the people you're attacking.

Without changing the laws of physics we aren't going to reverse any of these. We could stop the second world war...but that seems like a pretty big change to me (and another war may well have come soon after). So lets have a look at what airships can do compared to aeroplanes.

  • They run off Hydrogen and helium.
  • Once they've taken off you don't need to lose your fuel, you could even use (a lot of) man-power to make the ship move once you're in the air.
  • You can hover. Aeroplanes had to be moving at all times or be on the ground.

Without making massive changes in history (or physics) I don't think we can stop the development of aircraft for military use. However if we use the fuel differences and say there is a shortage of oil to create fuel for aeroplanes then I think we would see similar military development focused on airships like the motherships designed to carry aircraft close to their destination but remain a safe distance from the target. This way precious fuel could be conserved. Airships would then see a lot of attention from R&D and the cheaper Helium would be preferred by commercial airlines than the expensive oil-based fuels.

You could also put a spanner in the works for commercial aeroplanes with a similarly public disaster for the aeroplane. History is fraught with disasters...and the resulting improvements made. If these improvements hadn't been made and airships were still high in public opinion then it is likely airships would have received a lot more attention.

One of the biggest developments was in suitable landing gear, meaning the heavy passenger planes could land safely. Delaying developments in sturdy and reliable retractable landing gear would have caused more accidents and decreased public opinion drastically.

In the end public opinion is key to their usage, if people won't use aeroplanes then companies won't build them. Airships would be seen as the safest way to travel and their usage would become ingrained into infrastructure. There were even plans to use the Empire State building as an airship dock. If similar buildings were constructed then calls for airports with huge runways cutting into the countryside may be seen as an excessive change.

(There are massive repercussions to this: Helium is used in a lot of scientific research, upping demand for it would make it more expensive to pursue these areas).


The answer to the reason why the airship era was as short it was can be discerned from the two quotes from the Wikipedia entry on the airship.

The first discusses the advantages of airships:

The advantage of airships over aeroplanes is that static lift sufficient for flight is generated by the lifting gas and requires no engine power. This was an immense advantage before the middle of World War I and remained an advantage for long-distance or long-duration operations until World War II. Modern concepts for high-altitude airships include photovoltaic cells to reduce the need to land to refuel, thus they can remain in the air until consumables expire.

While the second points what enables heavier than air aircraft to win out over the airship.

So long as the power-to-weight ratios of aircraft engines remained low and specific fuel consumption high, the airship had an edge for long-range or -duration operations. As those figures changed, the balance shifted rapidly in the aeroplane's favour. By mid-1917, the airship could no longer survive in a combat situation where the threat was aeroplanes. By the late 1930s, the airship barely had an advantage over the aeroplane on intercontinental over-water flights, and that advantage had vanished by the end of World War II.

In essence the two World Wars accelerated the development of the aeroplane. Once the aeroplane outstripped the airship its dominance in the skies was at an end. However, this didn't happen immediately and while airships don't play as big a role in aviation they have the potential for long-endurance flight.

Therefore, in a world where history ran differently and the two World Wars didn't happen the aeroplane wouldn't have had its accelerated development in the nineteen-teens it is plausible the airship would have lasted longer.

Considering the importance of helium as a lifting gas, possibly if there had been more abundant sources of helium and especially outside the USA the airship might have been more viable.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. The political question is key: Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car has engine trouble, and as a result, he doesn't take a drive and get assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914. As a result, the pressure to accelerate the development of airpower doesn't happen. Hindenburg disaster was made all the more terrible due to the availability of pictures sent via wire and live radio broadcasts "Oh the humanity!". So if you don't want to mess with the basic geology/physics of the world, a few political changes will help. $\endgroup$ – jkp1187 Apr 30 '17 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @jkp1187 One political change would be the USA selling its helium to the rest of the world. Then no Hindenberg disaster. But without the growth of airpower, airships would have been used extensively. Eventually the aeroplane would have bypassed aerostats. It might have taken much longer. $\endgroup$ – a4android May 1 '17 at 5:53

A world with a lot less oil, or a world where oil contained little of the lighter components that make practical internal combustion engine fuel. Catalytic cracking was only developed in 1942, in the absence of a good supply of gasoline the internal combustion engine will lag far behind.

Airships don't need the power density airplanes do, they could run on steam engines that could be powered by just about anything that can burn.

  • $\begingroup$ For that matter, airships can use internal-combustion engines running ethanol, methanol, or even uncompressed gasses such as blau gas (the Graf Zeppelin used this). $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 30 '17 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Additional: the combustion engine driven car needed the electric starter before being able to be better than the electrity-driven car. If the combustion engine for cars never replaced the electric cars, the development of gasoline and the gasoline industry would not be big, so it could lag the plane more. $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner May 2 '17 at 13:11

For a more exotically-built-world solution, I'd suggest you choose a planet with lots of CO₂ in the atmosphere (perhaps in an orbit like Mars, but with more dense atmosphere and more water-rich. Life will have to be a bit different than on Earth, but it should be possible). This has multiple effects that work out to the favour of airships vs planes:

  • Airships will have higher buoyancy in that atmosphere. You can use safe nitrogen, argon or methane as the filling gas, or with hydrogen afford more payload per volume / better safety margins.
  • Hydrocarbons won't burn as easily in that atmosphere. This on one hand makes airships yet safer, on the other hand is a problem for combustion engines. Other energy carriers, e.g. batteries, flammable metals, muscle work or nuclear will still be work file, but those aren't much use for long-range airplanes. However, they can certainly be used for airships – in modern times you may end up with solar- or nuclear powered airships.

I'd say while there are many possible answers, one is immediately obvious.

Make everyone friendly.

Technological advances come far faster during times of war, as evidenced by the first half of the twentieth century.

Make everyone in your world get along nicely, and there will be no push to research winged flight.

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    $\begingroup$ As nice as this would be the OP wanted few changes...this seems like a massive one to me...just rewire all human's brains to be less aggressive. $\endgroup$ – FreeElk May 1 '17 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ But I think this is just not true. Techonogical advances come fast whenever there are innovative ideas and enough economical backing to realise them. Granted, the world wars did push progress especially in aviation a bit, by giving the economical incentive for mass-producing planes at a time when this would not have worked out on a civil commercial basis yet. But all the ideas were there already, and the shortcomings of lighter-than-air would have become obvious soon enough. I don't buy that the victory of heavier-than-air planes would have come more than five years later without the wars. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout May 1 '17 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ It's a misconception that wars bring innovation. Like leftaroundabout's comment, all the major innovations during both world wars occurred before the outbreak of the wars: radar, sonar, airplanes, rocketry. These were already in development - during the wars they were simply altered for nefarious purposes. $\endgroup$ – flox May 28 '18 at 12:10

Not sure if it counts as a minor change but what about having a really bad accident when planes were first coming about. So at a few exhibitions early on there are big accidents, these silly attempts end up crashing into crowds time and time again. It doesn't take long before even attempting a heavier than air flying machine is seen as irresponsible and mad...no one will fund you and other inventors have lost friends and family to these silly pursuits.

Then you get no one trying to make it work because they're such a taboo subject and progress is stifled and it just isn't seen as a viable alternative during the wars so no development goes into them.

  • $\begingroup$ There were a whole lot of really bad accidents when planes were first coming about. Didn't much slow things down -- the advantages of airplanes over balloons or airships are just too great. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 2 '17 at 2:35
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    $\begingroup$ There were a lot...but they didn't kill the right people or get the right attention. If you're at an exhibition and there are a load of wonderful, elegant hot air balloons and air ships taking off nicely and then someone wheels out some contraption that doesn't look like it will work...and then it crashes into a crowd of wealthy on-lookers...the outrage would be enough to shame people into avoiding investing in it I think. Like the hindenburg mentioned in Lio's answer above...there were loads of accidents before but only that one got enough attention to make people lose faith. $\endgroup$ – FreeElk May 2 '17 at 9:52

I suppose you could switch make the discovery of cheap, lightweight, highly efficient, flexible solar cells and electric motors to a much earlier time. Airships covered in solar cell fabric to power their electric motors would make daytime flights the cheapest ways to move things and people around. If you also made fossil fuels somewhat scarce or difficult to refine, that would help a lot, as their energy density to cost ratio is still much better than our best batteries today.

If a highly efficient way to gather and store electrical energy came about earlier, but was coupled with the limiting factor of having to have large surface area to gather enough of it to be useful, that would give more of an incentive to make the airships more efficient. As long as airships get enough time to become more efficient than heavier-than-air alternatives you could extend the age of airships for quite a while without changing too many other things.

Also the "make everyone friendly" answer.



Imagine a society that deifies winged birds such as eagles and hawks or has a bird god such as Anzu or Karura. In this society, wings are the tools of gods, and winged planes are heresy. The airship floats without wings, and therefore building one would not get you beheaded/burned at the stake.


Earth does not have a lot of accessible helium, and getting it is expensive. Making helium more plentiful and extraction substantially less expensive would lead to it being preferred over hydrogen, and thus safer. Additionally the buoyancy provided by cheap helium would be preferred over the lift provided by airspeed over a wing, which is expensive on fuel.


Airships can be quite large and provide an open space, passenger airline space is a fraction of the size even today. Airships can also fly at lower altitudes and give constant views of the land/sea below, and the cabin is much quieter due to engine location and airspeed. I would much prefer a large airship over a cramped plane any day, despite the speed difference.

Plane crashes

As George said in the comments, a bad track record of airplane safety combined with a good track record for airship safety would sway public opinion away from plane development, especially if they crashed into densely populated areas, killing not only the passengers and crew, but thousands of people on the ground.

Weather and Geography

If the weather on the planet was more stable (less storms, lower speed winds) then the flying conditions would more favorable to airships, which is a current downside. Additionally, less mountainous terrain means an airship can fly long distances with a constant altitude, and stay lower to the ground.


The main practical advantages of airships are their relative ease of operation (landing in particular) and their ability to operate at low velocities. A core method to reach the velocity necessary to make airplanes work is combustion. Therefore, an early shortage of fossil fuels would certainly stretch the age of airships, possibly indefinitely.


No Government funded Public schools set the majority of the nations to technical ignorance

I'd suggest making economic zones more extreme in wealth disparity, 1000 miles between rich areas that can afford runways and repair facilities where as the airship can do its own repairs and use unrefined vegi oil or coal to power its flight making it the low tech. Monopolize banking to lean in the favor of the airship towers instead of the huge costs of building the dedicated facilities for airplanes. You'd have a dual system long range for the airship and short hops for the wealthy in gyro's or something like it.


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