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In my fantasy world, airships are the main way of transportation. These airships have the hull of a regular 12 century medieval liner. This liner has two leather horizontal gliders on either side (outriggers) responsible for keeping the airship afloat, as well as a sail above the main vessel for propulsion. (I am aware that the physics of this are impossible, but considering this is a fantasy universe I am not concerned).

It is relevant to my story that there are creatures that come after these ships in packs. These are winged serpents with the intelligence of wolves that attack the glider's sails and passengers, diving with their fangs and barbed tails.

These creatures are very territorial, which is the reason for their hostility towards these airship. However, avoiding these airspaces is impossible as the main airways run right through them. Therefore it is a necessity that they have defenses against these creatures.

Note that these people have technology equivalent to that of Imperial China. Leave any questions below.

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    $\begingroup$ What material is the "hull of a regular liner"? $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 26 '17 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ And what is "regular 12 century medieval liner"? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 26 '17 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ If the outriggers are BIG enough, and filled with helium (think pontoons), it might work. Interesting concept. How big are the serpents with respect to humans? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 26 '17 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @John As I said, they would attack the ship passengers as well as the sails, this leads to the ship becoming unbalanced and therefore falling. A normal attack procedure would be for the residence to all move towards the back of the ship as it is least likely to fall back-first. $\endgroup$ – Unhappymarshmellow Oct 26 '17 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get how attacking people or sails would have any effect on the balance. Flotation all comes from the airbags and mass is mostly in the hull, so anything that doesn't damage those should be irrelevant. Just furl in the sails and put anyone without snake-proof armor below decks. // Incidentally, would just killing the snakes by wiping out their nesting areas be a practical solution? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Oct 26 '17 at 21:12
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You have three main options: violence, deterrence and countermeasures.

Violence: If you kill them, they can't kill you.

  • Archers are the simplest and most readily available form of attack at a distance, but will probably struggle to hit anything.
  • Repeating crossbows (Cho-Ko-Nu) are a bigger, heavier option but should give a higher chance of hitting them.
  • Soldiers with melee weapons stationed on the ship may also be useful, especially if the creatures 'board' your ship to attack it.

Deterrence: You don't need to kill them if they're not attacking you.

  • Animals don't generally like explosions. A few well placed fireworks ought to scare them away.
  • Animals are generally scared of larger, more threatening animals. Given your liner has wings and physics is apparently not an issue, you could just make your airship look like a much larger creature, or better still one of the creature's predators (if they have any).
  • Bait. Trail some tasty foodstuff behind your airship for them to munch on instead of your passengers. If they don't need to eat a ridiculous amount, then you may be able to develop a relationship with them in which you pay a 'food tax' every time you go through their territory - in time they'll learn to take the free meal.
  • Bait and poison. Trail the tasty food, but fill it with something lethal. Next trip you're significantly less likely to be bothered.

Countermeasures: If you can't stop them from attacking you, then you need to make their attacks less effective.

  • Enclose the squishy bits (humans mostly) and armour the rest so that their attacks are ineffective.
  • Make the structure painful to attack - a few pointy objects surrounding the bits that get attacked and the creatures will be much less enthusiastic.
  • Fly faster or higher than the creatures can. They can't attack you if they can't catch you.
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Possible counter measures:

  • Archers
  • Ballista
  • Catapult/cannon Launched net (you can disable their wings too)
  • Flamethrower (Byzantines are reported to have a primitive equivalent)
  • Flak - the ancient Chinese did have gunpowder for fireworks. same concept only you add bits of sharp metal as shrapnel inside the firework which acts as a flak round (common anti air defense).
  • (needless to say the option for a cannon full of bird shot is also plausible).

Aside from conventional means of killing something from a distance, the added vulnerability of flight generally increases the amount of potentially lethal options as it is usually easier to disable a flying thing than out right killing it (especially since impact can often finish the job).

Another possible solution is conditioning

Mine their territory with floating balloons that when destroyed some how damage or kill the attacker (be it an explosion or some kind of kinetic trap like a net that ensnares them causing them to plummet to the ground with the wreckage).

Eventually the species will learn not to be aggressive towards passive human crafts passing through their terrain.

Any animal only attacks as a means of defense, securing a mate, or acquiring food. Territorial instincts are a derivative of that. If you make it so human crafts offer none of those when killed but also add the risk of injury or death then most species learn to avoid you.

It's similar to how porcupines defenses work on a psychological level. We recently have been employing this same tactic against lions.

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    $\begingroup$ Flamethrower on an airship seems counterproductive...setting a target on fire that immediately flies into your vessel would negate any flamethrower effectiveness. And for what it's worth, Greek Fire (used by Byzantines) is by no means primitive. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 26 '17 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth I think only the presence of a flamethrower is enough to scare animals off, it's not necessary to burn them. $\endgroup$ – xpy Oct 27 '17 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @xpy - I've had the displeasure of accidentally setting a ground squirrel on fire (rule number one of rocketry, always assume it will explode)...little bugger eventually put itself out, but not before causing more than 10 individual fires around my yard. You catch one seagull with that flame that decides your sails are the best way to put itself out, and you've got a 100% loss scenario on your hands. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 27 '17 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ They could make the sails flame retardant $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 27 '17 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a little uncertain about using flak for close-quarters air-to-air defence - an explosion spewing shrapnel in all directions seems like a great way to accidentally shred your own airship. $\endgroup$ – Serlite Oct 27 '17 at 19:08
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winged serpents with the intelligence of wolves

Domesticate the dang things. Call them snogs (snake + dog)

You don't even have to fully domesticate them, if they're super territorial. You just have to coax a decent-sized group into claiming your ship as 'theirs' in such a way that they defend it from other flying serpents but let your people load, unload, and operate it. You'll want to keep breeding them towards being friendlier to people, but it really shouldn't be too long before you can get them safe enough for trained personnel to operate near them.

Wolves are smart enough to not attack something that will cause them serious damage - predators can't afford to get seriously injured. Therefore, your domesticated snogs flying serpents shouldn't have to actually fight a bunch of other flying serpents... they just have to be scary enough that the other ones leave your ship alone.

Now, what to do if you still have to fight the suckers? Sand-shotguns! (Doesn't require gunpowder... can just use something like a crossbow.) Salt guns work wonders against bugs - I figure the same principle works on a larger scale too. Most flying things are quite fragile, so it doesn't take much to knock them out of the air. You could tinker with different sands and dirts, trying to find a good balance between stopping power, range, and cost. Biggest advantage here is that sand and dirt won't damage your ship when you miss. You'd have to be careful to wipe it off to avoid weighing down your ship and stuff, but that's easier than patching holes.

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Those dread flying creatures were once a problem, particularly during the autumn - they are more territorial then.

The flying ships used to have to ensure an armed troupe was on board which cut back on the cargo and passengers that could be carried

Then - and I don't know how they found out how to do this - they started carrying Suona players. Just two players could make enough noise to keep the beasts at bay. Some ships carried a specially adapted bagpipe but apparently, the extra loudness of this isn't needed

I suppose the flying beasts have sensitive hearing and the high pitched wailing puts them off

Some passengers really don't like it but it's better than being in an air crash

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suona

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Man-made spider webbing

Surround the vulnerable areas with woven net cages lined with sticky, itchy oils. The serpents will not be able to easily swoop in and cause damage as they will not be able to avoid contact with the encumbering and irritating nets.

The nets could be made from farmed spiders (high quality), silkworms (good quality) or plant fibers (cheap, short lived and heavy).

There are various saps that would work as a coating. Crushed irritating plants worked into a thick oil would not be difficult to produce.

Addendum --

The netting may negatively impact flight characteristics. In that case, it could be rigged in a manner similar to sails. The nets would be deployed when entering the creature's territory and withdrawn for better speed and handling when safely away. This can add further opportunity for tension and drama during flight.

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I'm going to assume the avoid / tame / deter options are off the table here. Assuming story line includes having to fight these lil buggers off, so you want the conflict afterall.

Defence:

1 - Protect the airbags! Put a large 'net' around the ships outriggers. Pretty simple theory, a claw or bite would only be able to hit the net rigging around the bladder and not the bladder itself. Extra points if this has a sticky substance (or otherwise nasty to bite/claw substance).

2 - Protect the people. Armour the liner and have area's general passengers and not combat crew can hide in

3 - Sail redundancy. Lets face it, sails are hard to protect in these situations. Having multiple sails (including a 'backup' one that is hidden until deployed as a last resort) is a valid option.

For defensive reasons...don't use fire or explosives. Fire tends to set your own ship on fire (even if you don't hit your own ship, a serpent on fire hitting your sails is your ship on fire), while explosives will likely cause several holes in your own ship

Attack:

You put this in the comment: "Shooting stones out of a catapult would be very ineffective as these serpents are very small and agile"

That's semi correct. In traditional navy, there are 2 types of shot that are frequently used...cannonballs and grapeshot. Now it is true that the serpents being small and agile would be hard to hit with a single cannonball, however grapeshot is the 'shotgun' approach containing many little pellets. Same idea as duck hunting really, you are going to shoot a spray of bullets instead of a single large one.

For 12th century terms...a little early, but a Trebuchet is the single shot weapon while the Mangonel was the shotgun spray approach.

The Chinese had the Cho Ko Nu, however various 'hand ballistas' had been developed significantly earlier right around 0 AD. Cheiroballistra, it's Scorpian predecessors, and even the lithbolos (stone thrower) could all be effective. Of course, the Ballista https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_siege_engines#Early_Roman_ballista is an undervalued piece of equipment...at 100 yards, a man size target could be easily targetted and struck reliably with a ballista (ballistas are considered more accurate than a 19th century musket by a large margin, with scorpians being the smaller and more accurate 'antipersonnel' version of ballista's).

More deceptive - sticky bits on the defensive rigging. Biological flight is usually a 'perfected' thing and it doesn't take much to throw a flying creature off...kinda like tying a sock around a cat kills the cats balance. Having pieces of sticky coated rope and rigging thats attached to the defensive mesh around the air bladders but will come loose if stuck to a creature can seriously mess up a flying attacker...serpent flies by and claws at the rigging, hits the net protection and has a sticky chunk of tar coat it's claw and arm that contacts its wing and sticks it's wing to itself preventing it's proper use would down a flying serpent.

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A "spring engine" was a simple weapon to send a cloud of darts at the enemy.

Picture a wooden board with dozens of holes fixed to a frame (the frame can be turned and elevated to aim). The holes have darts placed inside, with the ends sticking out the back. Behind them is a similar solid board, which is fixed t a powerful spring. The crew cranks the spring mounted board to the stop, engages the ratchet and swivels the device to aim at the centre of mass of the target. Pulling the ratchet release causes the solid board to slam into the back of all the darts, propelling them into the air.

In the middle ages, this could be used to drive defenders from the top of a wall, or sweep a crowd of oncoming soldiers advancing to the wall carrying ladders. In this setting, you aim at the centre of the pack and unleash the darts. If you are lucky, they hit a few of the pack, but even the flight of many darts past the pack should cause a startle reaction and sow confusion, giving the sip the ability to manoeuvre or mount other counters (archers could try to pick off the confused beasts while the main weapon is reloaded and rewound).

enter image description here

Spring Engine

If you allow the use of gunpowder, rocket propelled arrows were a thing in ancient China and Korea, then a multiple arrow launcher is possible. the blast of the rockets being launched, and the trails of smoke and fire as they fly towards the targets should also cause a startle effect and break up formations of incoming beasts.

enter image description here

That should do the trick!

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We already have counter measures for flocks of aggressive birds: spikes

Australian Magpies are birds that are very territorial and often engage cyclists. For this reason cyclists will wear spiked helmets to keep the birds at bay (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_magpie#Swooping).

enter image description here

Additionally, to prevent birds from camping on certain buildings or objects, spikes are used to prevent birds from landing there (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_control_spike).

enter image description here

(images from wikipedia)

Although these methods are not as sophisticated as the ones mentioned before, they could provide for some interesting designs for your ships.

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There are many potential weapons and physical defenses discussed in other answers. But have you considered some kind of decoy or confusion defense that lures them away from the ships?

Also, camouflage & hiding are important defensive factors. If they cant find the ships, they can't attack.

Finally, some kind of self-destruct mechanism, where they are lured to ship, and then perhaps it is set on fire, and people zip-line to another ship or something.

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