What are Dirigibles?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A dirigible, also known as an airship, is a type of buoyant engine powered craft with a steering mechanism. The dirigible is different from a weather balloon, as balloons have no steering systems or power and are unmanned. Dirigibles are also distinguishable from aircraft because of their specialized long bodies. The airship is filled with a light gas such as helium, which provides lift. Unlike an airplane, a dirigible also has no wings, but merely tail fins.

Examples of early airships, including several dirigibles.
Examples of early airships, including several dirigibles.

The shape of a dirigible is known to most consumers who have seen blimps, or nonrigid dirigibles, floating across the sky. Most dirigibles have a long, roughly cylinder shaped body which fattens in the middle. At the front of the dirigible is a mooring system so that the dirigible can be docked. Nestled below the craft on the front is a light deck, where the crew members are stationed. Spaced out along the body of the dirigible are the propelling motors and the back steering assembly which has a rudder and a horizontal stabilizer which functions to keep the dirigible upright.

Airships, like the non-rigid dirigibles that are often seen at sporting events, use helium, a gas that is lighter than air, to stay aloft.
Airships, like the non-rigid dirigibles that are often seen at sporting events, use helium, a gas that is lighter than air, to stay aloft.

The essential concept of a lighter-than-air craft has been around since the late 1700s, when designs for a craft lighter than the air it displaced was first designed. The predecessor of the dirigible was the hot air balloon, first flown in 1783. In the 1850s, the first prototype of the dirigible was flown by Henri Giffard. In the late 1800s, other versions of the dirigible began to pop up, made more practical by the invention of the gasoline engine. In the early 1900s, dirigibles began to sweep across the world, made by a number of nations including Germany, the United States, and Britain.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a pioneer in rigid dirigible design.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was a pioneer in rigid dirigible design.

Dirigibles played a role in the First World War, with most of the major powers using soft dirigibles to make observations, and Germany using semi-rigid dirigibles to drop bombs on London and the rest of England. Dirigibles continued to be popular through the 1930s, in spite of repeated accidents and the realization that fixed wing airplanes were a better choice for transportation. Eventually, production of dirigibles for military use ceased, while a limited number were still made for civilians.

Perhaps the most famous dirigible ever made has been the Hindenburg, which exploded at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937. The Hindenburg was built by the Zeppelin Company in Germany, which dominated the dirigible market for many years. Designed to be a luxury airship, the Hindenburg was a massive craft, originally intended to be filled with helium, the nonflammable gas which had been used in American dirigibles since the 1920s. However, the ship was inflated with hydrogen because the Germans had no access to helium.

While still docking at Lakehurst, the rear of the Hindenburg caught fire, causing the dirigible to lose lift. It began to sag towards the ground while crew and passengers tried to escape. Astonishingly, 62 of the 97 people aboard managed to escape the Hindenburg, which probably exploded due to the flammable solution used to dope, or seal, the outside of the craft. The explosion of the Hindenburg brought the scheme of replacing luxury ocean liners with dirigibles to a halt, and the craft were primarily used for novelty purposes by the end of the twentieth century.

The development of reliable airliners, such as the Ford Trimotor, in the 1920s and 30s made passenger dirigibles largely obsolete.
The development of reliable airliners, such as the Ford Trimotor, in the 1920s and 30s made passenger dirigibles largely obsolete.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What is the theoretical maximum altitude, speed,

lift weight, passenger load of a contemporary airship?

Jake Hill

Where are people custom building and flying airship as stated in the last post?

I admin a forum based project to build personal airships. We don't have anything flying yet, but we are working towards that goal. So if there are others building or experimenting, we would love to touch base with them.


@youbiKan: Where do you live? What club is it? I would really like to know.

@summertime: Where do you get the kits from?


There is a club that custom dirigibles in my local area that they are very fun to watch take to the skies. While most of them are privately owned a few of them have taken on sponsors as to offset the high cost of building and maintaining such a craft.

The advertisers have included mostly local businesses that can see the value that sponsoring a local zeppelin club can bring and there is no doubt that when these ships go up, people's heads do as well.


I think the concept of these airships is simply amazing and I want my very own personal dirigible. While most people are terrified because of the past history, I think that they are quite safe. There are several options that I have seen on the market but because there are not really any companies with machines in production everything is custom built and quite pricey.

There are dirigible model plans that you can purchase as to build your very own ship but I simply do not trust my very limited mechanical knowledge and skill. I would much rather pay someone to construct my dirigible as to assure the quality of construction is on a professional and safe level.


I think that it is sad that the dirigibles history has such an atrocity as the Hindenburg. Can you imagine if the Germans hadn't filled it with hydrogen and a major industry for these airships had actually caught on. Maybe they would have made great cruise vacation vehicles that would allow for fabulous sight seeing.


I'll never forget the first time that I saw a modern dirigible and the awe-inspiring effect that it had on my concept of the world.

At the young age of five I attended a San Diego Padres baseball game at what was then Jack Murphy Stadium. During the fourth inning my Mom exclaimed, "LOOK! It's is the good year blimp!"

I was astonished by the way that it could simply suspend itself in the air and just float somewhat aimlessly in the sky above the crowd. While it was not considered a big dirigible the Good Year blimp is a very iconic symbol from the American auto culture.


If the dope on the outside of the blimp is what initiated the fire or not is incredibly regularly protested. Many people from experts to semi-polymaths like the Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel dispute that it was primarily the dope, though many agree that it did miniscully increase the speed of the burning of the outer skin.

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