Historical Accidents: Hindenburg

There are certain moments in time, certain accidents and events, that shaped human history far more than the limited context in which they happened.

In this line of posts I am going to talk about a few that have shaped the modern world, and why they need to be corrected.

The first I am going to cover is the Hindenburg and Airships
File:Hindenburg burning.jpg

In May 1937 this giant German airship caught fire while attempting to dock in Lakehurst NJ. The disaster killed 35 of the 97 people aboard. What it did was end the era of the rigid airship. The disaster itself is terrible, but what we lost was far far more.

Essentially, this is the equivalent of the Titanic leading to the abandonment of passenger ships by mankind. Seriously.

Lighter than air rigid airships have all kinds of great benefits. First of all, they are lighter than air. Think about that. It means that when the engines cut out, you dont die in hurtling flaming ball of death. You just kind of float around, like you would in boat. Second, because you dont need air blowing over curved surfaces at 500mph, these things are cheap to fly. They float all on their own, you just need to tell them where to go. Also, because of their design, they can actually lift heavy loads, again without burning enormous amounts of fuel. In all of these ways, they are a lot more like ships (hence: airships) than they are like planes. And that is a good thing, because for years we have been searching for something that does what airships would do -- heavy lift over land over any terrain at low cost -- but have come up with all kinds of giant plants and huge helicopters, all because of one thing. The Hindenburg.

This really is just plain silly. It was a disaster that occurred 70 years ago using pre WWII technology, and yet that disaster cast such a shadow that we are still not using rigid airships today. Not to mention, even then, the Germans wanted to use helium to float the ship, but it was very expensive and only came from the US, which had ban on exports.

So because of that one choice on the part of the German designers and US politicians (not that I blame them for banning anything from Germany in the 30's) we have given up on one of the most promising and beautiful forms of travel.

Think about this for a second, a floating cruise ship traveling at 30mph almost silently 300ft over the Okavango Delta in full flood. You look out the panoramic windows of your cabin to see a herd of wildebeest crossing a river. At night, the airship ascends to 10,000 ft for a calmer nights rest, and speeds up a little to move you on to region where the captain has just been informed that a herd of elephants has been spotted. Virtually silent and with almost no environmental impact, these ships cruise over the Okavango, the Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, etc.

http://www.boingboing.net/images/x_2008/airship08.jpg

Or consider the other main application: cargo.

Back in the day, the Zeppelin Company regularly carried a combination of passengers and cargo. Today, you would not likely combine the two, but both would be well served by rigid airships.

When car companies look for the "next big thing" they look for the white space. The space between what currently exists today. Ten years ago that white space was the yawning gap between cars and SUV's. Today, that has been filled with innumerable crossovers, and companies are looking for ever smaller gaps. Sports coupe SUV's, tall wagons, funky box compacts, and small commercial vans have all recently been introduced.

But think about it in terms of transport. You have ships, rail, trucks, and planes. Each is an order of magnitude more expensive and less efficient than the one before it. But there is yawing gap between ships and planes. You see, rail and trucks require a lot of good infrastructure. Big cargo planes require massive airfields, and are still limited in how much they can carry. Rigid airships would allow you to heavy loads from anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world. In the most important aspects, speed, load-size, cost, airships would fit nicely in the huge white-space left between boats, and planes. Both civilian and military applications would be compelling.

http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2008/sep/Cover/images/Boeing-Skyhook.jpg


And yet, these are all experiences and capacities we cannot currently have because of one historical accident.

It is time to open our eyes a little bit and not simply dismiss something because it has been dismissed before.

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