The Zeppelin engineers knew what they were doing

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Casey Handmer trusts that the Zeppelin engineers knew what they were doing:

But they were built of primitive 2000 series aluminium alloys, doped canvas, and cow gut. I think we can improve on the materials. In particular, carbon fiber pultrusions are about six times as strong and far simpler to assemble than the typical recursive riveted Zeppelin truss.

These beams could be integrated with injection molded nodes and tensioned with Kevlar cables. Gas bags would be aluminized mylar (space blanket) while the outer cover could be ripstop Nylon. (It is hard to overstate just how much better Nylon is than what came before. Try skydiving with a hemp parachute!)

Alternatively, one could optimize for cost instead of performance and cobble together a functional structure from foam core fiberglass produced onsite with simple tooling and assembled like LEGO by hand in the open air.

Alternatively, use a welded aluminium truss segment like the ones used for events. There are about half a dozen manufacturers just in Los Angeles, and while some tooling changes would be needed to support a thinner tube wall, the Hindenburg needs about 20 km of truss.

The exciting thing about the low cost approach is that it closely mirrors the approach of the original Zeppelin designers, who were severely resource constrained. Indeed, with modern materials I think it could be possible to home-build a Zeppelin at a similar scale to the Bodensee for less than $100k and with less than ten person-years of labor. This brings it into the realm of home built yachts and kit aircraft.

Such a home built would have to use innovative manufacturing to be assembled outside a large hangar, perhaps by extruding it tail first from the ground. It may also exploit a more conventional power system with salvaged automotive engines turning propellers in pods. The lifting gas of choice would be hydrogen, in order to keep operating costs low. Provided the space between gas bags and cover is sufficiently well ventilated that hydrogen can never build up at a concentration between 4% and 75%, ignition and/or deflagration is unlikely without a major structural failure or gas bag tear.


The structure, at 118 T, is just over half the total lift of 216 T. Doubling structural margins with composites could still reduce overall structural mass by a factor of 3, to 39 T, while also greatly simplifying assembly. That’s less than the weight of a railway carriage! All else being equal, the payload increases from 9.5 T to 88 T, almost a 10x improvement. Payload fraction increases from 4.4% to 40%.


The Hindenburg had 59 T of fuel and 4 T of oil. Operating with relatively primitive and heavy diesel engines, it could cruise at about 80 mph, crossing the Atlantic in 2.5 days. As it burned fuel it either had to vent hydrogen or capture rain to offset the reduced mass. The earlier Graf Zeppelin used neutrally buoyant blaugas, enabling longer flights over the equator to Brazil since burning didn’t change the weight of the airship.

But there’s no rule saying we have to afford the Zeppelin designers the benefit of copying their propulsion system. Like materials, we can assume that if they had something better, they would have used it.

My suggestion is to affix a steerable electric fan to each structural node. These ~1700 small motors would be able to completely control the boundary layer flow over the airship, stabilizing it in gusty wind and enabling fine-grained control while maneuvering. No need for a big, heavy and structurally vulnerable tail. Many airships were damaged or lost due to gusts while attempting to dock or enter a hangar. No more!

Each motor would be powered during the day by thin film solar panels built into the airship’s skin. This should be able to drive it along at about 50 mph. This number is quite robust to scaling as both drag and power increase as linear dimension squared, while elongating the airship to reduce frontal area both increases structural difficulty and doesn’t actually improve drag.

For additional power or during the night, a neutrally buoyant mix of propane and ethane can be burned in a compact turbine generator. In such a case, range is limited only by what fraction of the envelope is devoted to fuel as opposed to lifting gas. Powering cruise at 50 mph for 7 days would require 33 T of gas, which would consume about 15% of the displacement volume. This increases as the cube of speed.

The original Zeppelins never made money, he notes, and modern airships probably wouldn’t, either:

Despite hopes, they are not particularly useful for hauling cargo to remote areas. Airships depend on finessed trim and buoyancy — so dropping or picking up a huge cargo load somewhere is a big ask. They’re also not much use near the ground in wind, and no better than alternative logistics methods for delivering containers anywhere.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    We live near the 3C highway (SR 3) northeast of Columbus. That is the route the Goodyear dirigibles take to and fro Ohio Stadium, where tOSU plays.

    It seems they more meander than fly. Very low (regulation minimum) and very slow, more like 20 mph (or less) than 80 mph. I can’t believe that speed. Shouldn’t it be 80 kmph?

    The Goodyear makes a fine camera platform in calm weather. It’s real function is to advertise Goodyear. Fuji has one for the same purpose.

    They are curiosities, not transportation modes.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    So no clockwork, brass and goggles in our airship future?

  3. Altitude Zero says:

    Dirigibles were very valuable in WWII for spotting U-Boats, accompanying slow-moving convoys; no convoy guarded by blimps ever lost a ship. They are one of those things that have some very specific niches where they are very useful, but outside of those, not so much…

  4. Longarch says:

    “So no clockwork, brass and goggles in our airship future?”

    If a country has a healthy manufacturing base, the workers and their families will have enough spare money to spend lavishly on cosplay. Japan and Taiwan are great places to see cosplayers, especially when their economies are enjoying relatively good times. (The COVID-panic has not been good for supply chain resilience, so currently East Asia’s consumers are not consuming enough cosplay luxuries.)

    Assuming that the consumer society does not completely implode due to mismanagement, I suspect a skilled marketing visionary could convince the people who spend money on clockwork/brass/goggle costumes to spend enough money on airship tickets to make new zeppelin construction financially viable.

    However, currently the capitalist oligarchs think that they can keep starving the consumers without doing any long-term damage to capitalist oligarchies. So we might have to fix late-stage capitalism before we can enjoy any kind of middle-class consumerism.

  5. Longarch says:

    Also, while passenger airships might be un-economical, stratospheric airships seem to have a bright future for cheap rural Internet:

    The nightmare scenario, of course, is that repressive police states could use airships for ultra-affordable surveillance.

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