The era of airships ended c1960; where, after big ‘rigids’ were abandoned (c1940) and, except for a few small airships (like Goodyear’s advertising blimps), up to that time the US Navy’s ‘non-rigids’ were the only airships still operating. Economics in the USA, more than any other single factor then was responsible for their demise. The early 1960s was an age of severe budget cutbacks and transitional support towards high performance heavier-than-air (HTA) aircraft. The rational used to justify deleting airships was cited as:
- Fixed wing HTA aircraft can fulfil ASW and AEW for everything that lighter-than-air (LTA) types may provide.
- Use of fixed wing aircraft overcomes all the disadvantages inherent in airship use; i.e:
- Slowness in reaching the operating area.
- Poor manoeuvrability in laying detection buoy patterns.
- Vulnerability to high winds when ground handling.
- Vulnerability to gun fire.
- A view that airships would always be more expensive to operate than HTA units.
There was truth in the fact that HTA aircraft could perform almost every mission that LTA types were called out to do, but history proved that only slower airships provided the exceptionally long endurance needed at a cost that HTA types could never hope to match. The high procurement and high operating costs arguments, used to shoot airship development plans down (thereby justifying the need for HTA aircraft for every conceivable mission application), were soon realized to be false and, although there were numerous attempts to correct what was later expressed to be an ‘error of judgement’, airships were relegated to a low level R&D initiative aimed at keeping the technology alive. Eventually, the motivation for the R&D initiative faded and so airships passed into antiquity.
There also was truth that the older airships were constrained in manoeuvrability response when laying detection buoys and in ground handling. These limitations largely were mitigated by later asymmetrical vectored thrust control technology and predictive computational mechanisation control of more modern airship flight control and propulsion systems (demonstrated by AI Skyships in commercial operations) introduced in the 1980s. Indeed, the Sentinel 1000 was a technologically sophisticated and capable airship in this respect, well able to counter former manoeuvrability issues.
Such airships generally were faster than older designs, but not suitable for high speed flight. However, for survey (Patrol) roles, high aircraft speed often is a hindrance, posing high technology challenges for the sensor systems that then must cope not only with the high speed of say small missiles, but the aircraft’s own speed and vibration as well in a high clutter environment. Reducing airspeed remarkably improves detection and tracking capability of sensors carried and helps reduce the cost associated with high technology systems necessary for fast aircraft to attain acceptable system performance.
Today’s airship operational deployment strategy thus should consider first sending vehicles (perhaps drones) with high dash speed capability to the areas (e.g. after disasters have occurred) when there’s urgent need for rapid deployment and then back them up with airships afterwards, which also may be drone carriers – recovering any still at the scene – thus maximizing the benefit from using very long endurance aircraft at a much lower operating cost. Also, the longer the endurance aircraft have, the fewer the number necessary to maintain a single location operational commitment! In this way airships then would augment the operational strategy.
Better still and for known crisis situations, such as people fleeing desperate situations (taking risks across dangerous waters to escape their predicament), would be to have airships already patrolling their escape routes – shepherding them as they flee.
Airships today using helium would not be as vulnerable as older designs, also because of advances in technology, design, materials, higher altitudes possible and countermeasures. The loss of just one non-rigid airship, which occurred from 55,000 sorties flown by airships during World War II transatlantic crossings, was due to the fact that its crew chose to descend from a safe altitude in order to shoot it out with a hostile submarine that had surfaced. One may thus view that loss as a sortie failure or a failure in human judgement instead of an airship failure. Regardless, history speaks favourably of non-rigid types; where the vulnerability issue was more a matter of concern than demonstrated fact.