When passengers took off from Friedrichshafen, Germany on October 11, 1928 for the world’s first nonstop, transatlantic commercial flight, they didn’t embark upon the voyage from their seats on an airplane. Instead, they sat aboard the Graf Zeppelin airship en route to NAS Lakehurst in New Jersey, where they would successfully land four days later.
DELAG’s hydrogen-filled rigid airship continued flying passengers across the North and South Atlantic throughout most of the 1930s, as did several German zeppelins, including the Hindenburg. That ship made three dozen transatlantic passenger flights until it caught fire while attempting to dock in Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people.
The Hindenburg disaster marked the dramatic end of the airship’s brief tenure as a popular form of passenger travel. By the end, however, cheap fossil fuels made planes a faster, less expensive option than dirigibles anyway. If the Hindenburg hadn’t put the airship industry to pasture, evolution would’ve eventually finished the job.
But now that the transportation sector is looking for serious ways to cut carbon emissions, dirigibles are attempting to make a comeback. They’re still slower than jet travel, sure, but for cargo that doesn’t need to arrive in hours (to then languish in warehouses for days or weeks), slightly slower travel makes a whole lot of sense.
Last year, a study from scientists at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria found that airships could play a role in fighting global warming. Around a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions stem from transportation, with boats representing around 3 percent of that total.
The study proposed utilizing jet streams—those meandering air currents within Earth’s atmosphere that move all across the planet—to transport a combination of cargo and hydrogen, using airships or balloons at low altitudes. Using high wind speeds and reliable direction, the researchers found “hydrogen-filled airships or balloons could carry hydrogen with a lower fuel requirement and shorter travel time compared to conventional shipping.”
Airships have another big shipping advantage: Planes require, at minimum, landing strips, hangars, and roads to get the stuff they carry to where it’s going. While early airships relied on similar infrastructure, this new generation of giant flying blimps can zip from point to point and land anywhere, including ice sheets, beaches, meadows, deserts, and even atop water.
It’s this ability to get to places that don’t have roads that has drawn both private businesses and governments back to airships. Plus, they can fly over the infrastructure-destroying effects of climate change: As flooding and wildfires occur at an increasing clip, being able to deliver emergency supplies to areas that have been hit hard—without having to rely on roads or rails—is promising.
So why did it take the world this long to dust off such an old mode of transportation?