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Aural Delights Nov 2008

The A Bertram Chandler Story UFO is now available as an audio podcast from Starship Sofa Aural Delights No 48


Grimesish Grumberlings, The Ultimate Blimp

I have always had a thing about airships. (If you hear a faint clashing of phallic cymbals, ignore it.) It dates back, I think, to World War I, of which conflict I have a few childhood memories. One of them is of an air raid on London, with that silvery torpedo shape, a zeppelin, very high (by the standards of those days) caught in the criss-crossing beams of the searchlights. Somehow that recollection is scarcely less vivid than those of air raids on London during World War II....

During the latter days of World War I, and for a few years thereafter, I lived, with my mother and my maternal grandparents, in a small town called Beccles, in Suffolk. Beccles was a very popular town with the German airship crews. No, they didn’t drop any bombs on it. It was probably popular with German navigators in World War II, for the same reason. (There was one stick of bombs dropped on the town during the Second World War, but that was by a badly damaged aircraft whose captain was desperately trying to lighten ship so that he could gain altitude.) The reason for Beccles’ popularity was this. It has a church that is the only one of its kind in East Anglia - a square tower, not the usual spire, detached from the main body of the church, located on a bond of the river Waveney. It was an unmistakable landmark. You - supposing that you were a German airman - picked it up on your way west from the Fatherland, then turned south for London.

Beccles was close both to Pulham - the Royal Navy’s airship base - and to Farnborough, where the R.A.F., post war, kept its airships. As I recall it, these were prizes of war, ex-German zeppelins. The British did not name their airships, although a blimp from Pulham, a frequent visitor to our skies, was known as “the Pulham Pig”. The zeppelins merely had the “R”- for Rigid - prefix, and a number. R33 and R34 were the ones we saw the most of. It was R34, I think, that was selected for early research into the use of airships as aircraft carriers. As a small boy I was lucky enough to witness one such exercise. The aeroplane - a small biplane - was carried in the belly of the ship, and then lowered on a sert of trapeze affair with quick release gear. As soon as its engine was running properly it cast off, flew rings around its huge mother ship, and then, returning, hooked on and was drawn back up inside.

I first went to sea in 1928, at the time when Dr. Eckener was making the name both of himself and of his ship, Graf Zeppelin. I saw her quite a few times in various parts of the world. She had a long life, with very small repair bills but, with World War II starting, the aluminium that had gone into her construction was required for making aeroplanes.

It was the Hindenburg disaster that sounded the death knell of the big, passenger carrying airship. It still seems to no that a lot of fuss was made over the loss of a very few lives, relatively speaking, especially when the death roll of a modern plane crash is so horribly heavy. And there are rail crashes, and the occasional sea disaster, such as the wreck of Wahine. But for quite a few years prior to the First World War the zeppelins maintained an internal air mail and passenger service in Germany, without a single casualty.

The trouble with Hindenburg, of course, was what she had in her gas cells - hydrogen. At that time the only known sources of helium gas were in the U.S.A. Hitler had been trying to build up a stockpile of helium - if gas can be said to be stockpiled - but Roosevelt refused to play. He could see World War II coming up, and quite possibly had learned of the German plans for big, airship aircraft carriers. In pre-radar days such brutes could have had the Eastern Seaboard of the USA at their mercy. A surface aircraft carrier is vulnerable to attack from three dimensions - from under the sea, from the surface of the sea, from the air. The airship aircraft carrier would have been vulnerable to attack only from the air. She could have carried fighter aircraft as well as bombers. She could have handed out quite a wallop with rockets and heavy machine guns. Helium filled, she could have taken considerable punishment.

The World War I zeppelins could also take considerable punishment - until the invention of the incendiary bullet. One of the most important crew members was the sailmaker, who, wearing breathing apparatus, actually worked inside the gas cells with his palm and needle, stitching up the holes as the bullets came through....

(c) Sue ClarkeFinally, those airship carriers, if they ever had been built, would not have used anything so crude as that trapeze flying-off gear. They would have been of tubular construction, with the landing and taking-off dock inside the main body of the ship.

During World War II the Americans made considerable use of blimps for coastal patrol, on both seaboards. With their relatively low speeds and their considerable endurance they were the ideal aircraft for this purpose. If they spotted a submerged submarine they just stopped over the spot and dropped depth bombs at leisure. If they spotted a submarine on the surface they were supposed to stay well clear and call fast bombers to the locality. Towards the end of World War II the U-Boats, more and more liable to air attack when on the surface, were carrying considerable anti-aircraft armament on deck.

There was one case that has its elements of black humour. A blimp, sighting a surfaced submarine, decided to do the job all by its little self and came roaring in, at all of fifty knots, with its single .50 machine gun blazing - an antiaircraft gunner’s dream come true. Needless to say, the Germans’ twin 20 millimetre Oerlikons blew the thing to shreds before it get anywhere near them.

Nonetheless, the blimps were good. I have proposed, after the Blythe Star affair, that we use blimps for coast patrol and air-sea rescue operations. But nobody ever listens to me. I often wonder if H.G. Wells did have the epitaph that he wanted on his tombstone: You damned fools! I told you so!

Even so, there are quite a few people who want to see the airship make a come-back. Goodyear - a company that still produces the occasional blimp - had plans, just after the end of WWII, for two huge, beautiful, passenger-carrying airships. But Uncle Sam wouldn’t come across with the subsidy. Uncle Sam had a down on airships. The U.S. Navy sent its surviving big blimps on a round-the-world cruise just to prove that airships are No Good. That cruise proved the very reverse - but the blimps were scrapped. I wonder who was behind the scenes... The big oil companies prefer (or did prefer, in pre Power Crisis days) a flying machine that’s a glutton for fuel rather one that works on the smell of an oily rag. Eckener, in fact, once sailed his ship, Graf Zeppelin, to Rio. He suffered a breakdown of all four diesels at once, He juggled gas and ballast until he found a fair wind, and by the time his engineers had the diesels working he was there... You couldn’t do that in an aeroplane.

Feasibility studies regarding the operation of airships have been made by at least two major shipping companies - one specialising in container carriers, the other in oil and natural gas tankers. The Russians use air-ships for carrying supplies to the garrisons along their border with China. In many places it’s rugged country, where it would be practically impossible to make airstrips, and well beyond the range of big, cargo-carrying helicopters. I don’t know what branch of the Russian forces mans the things, but it has been hinted that, in the West, personnel will be recruited from the sea services. An airship is a ship, run like a ship, handled like a ship - although in three dimensions. It reminds me of once when I was flying to New Zealand. It was just after the Qantas strike regarding night landings at Djakarta, with very unreliable radio navigational aids. Most of the journey I spent in the front office, earbashing and being earbashed. We talked about -among other things - the recent strike. “Remember this,” said the Qantas captain, “when you are in trouble you can drop both anchors and go full astern. I can’t.” In an airship, however, you could do just that.

Just imagine the reintroduction of the airship to the passenger trade. Helium filled - and helium, these days, is plentiful, all over the world - it would be absolutely safe. You would travel in big ship comfort. Although the voyage from Sydney to London, might take as long as five days, this would be advantageous rather than otherwise. You would not have your personal time scale thrown out, and you would arrive fit and rested. Cruising at a relatively low altitude you would be able to enjoy the scenery.

I have often wondered what people do with the time allegedly saved by travel in jet aeroplanes. Getting away from people to mail - it is a known fact that in the days of the Western Ocean fliers - the big, fast ships such as Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth - it took less time for a letter to get from London to New York - or vice versa - than it does today.

There is the ecological viewpoint to be considered, too. I have a simple mind, and I just can’t see the point of burning fuel to proceed from Point A to Point B and to stay up, when all you need do is burn fuel to proceed from Point A to Point B. After all, in a surface ship you don’t have to burn fuel just to stay afloat… The less fuel that is burned, the less atmospheric pollution.

As a matter of fact there was an airship, invented by a man called Andrews way back in the 1800s, that burned no fuel at all. It was gravity powered. It worked. Starting off, the airship was trimmed so that its stern was down and its nose up. With the moorings cast off it did an upwards glide. As soon as it reached its ceiling gas was valved and ballast shifted to reverse the trim. It did a downward glide. As soon as the pilot’s nerve failed ballast would be shifted again, and dumped and there would be another upward glide. And so on, and so on, with the airship proceeding in a series of swoops.

Oh, I admit that the airship would be of little value as a military aircraft, except in areas where it could be used for unmolested coast patrol work. But, as the recent Middle East War showed all too clearly, no matter what you’re flying, the SAMs will get you.

(c) Sue Clarke
Originally Published in ARK No: 2 - Mar 1974