I’ve harboured a secret desire to be a zeppelin pilot for a good while now. I’m not the only one, I’m sure, considering the way zeppelins have wormed their way into the public imagination. Science fiction and fantasy are full of zeppelins. Find an alternate history scenario, and you’re likely to find a zeppelin hovering in the air somewhere. There’s something undeniably elegant about a rigid airship that an airplane just doesn’t have, not just stateliness, but style. Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn captured that appeal in a delightful way.
Meanwhile, in the Canadian north it seems collective dreams of zeppelin-filled skies might come true. Thanks to global warming, the ice roads are becoming less and less a reliable way to supply remote northern communities, so the obvious solution is to build a few zeppelins, right? Actually, by 2014 Canada might actually have a zeppelin fleet crossing the ice-filled tundra. I could hardly suppress my squeal of excitement the first time I heard about this idea. Screw plans for graduate studies in history, once they open up training for zeppelin pilots, I’m signing up. I just hope no one notices when a zeppelin goes missing from the fleet, and then a mysterious airship with a skull-and-crossbones painted on the rear fin starts hovering (weighty with menace, mind you) over Magadan.
Such future career options aside, there was a very real possibility in the 1930s that the United States would construct a passenger zeppelin service stretching across the world. Unfortunately, the Hindenburg disaster and, later, World War Two, put a halt to these plans. With post-war considerations and the acceleration of airplane technology, the zeppelin network was inevitably scrapped. Not to say that there weren’t some passionate advocates for the lowly rigid airship.
P.W. Litchfield and Hugh Allen made a plea for a worldwide zeppelin passenger service in their book Why has America no Rigid Airships? (1945). It is, perhaps, the most earnest advocacy for zeppelins I’ve ever seen. Take this passage:
It is perhaps not too strong a statement that the Hindenburg disaster is the chief reason why America does not have commercial airships today. The shock of that catastrophe, coming on the heels of the loss of two American ships, chilled public enthusiasm, and for the time being at least halted plans of business and the government to build more dirigibles.
ANY CONCLUSION HOWEVER THAT WE MIGHT REACH FROM THE LOSS OF THESE SHIPS THAT AIRSHIP FLYING IS IMPRACTICAL OR UNSAFE, SEEMS ON ANALYSIS TO BE COMPLETELY UNJUSTIFIED. (29)
Well, I know I’m convinced. Yet the book is an interesting read and, well, actually is pretty darned convincing. It also paints a highly attractive picture of a world where the primary mode of intercontinental air travel remains the zeppelin. I’m actually sad that the world didn’t turn out this way—certainly, it would be a more romantic place, with silver dirigibles slowly ploughing their way over the oceans.
And, of course, zeppelins would always be a viable place for adventures involving pirates and evil barons. I doubt that the airships proposed for use in the arctic will spark an international zeppelin revolution, but I can always dream, can’t I?