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Airships are lighter-than-air vehicles that can be steered and propelled through the air using rudders and propellers or other thrust mechanisms. Unlike aerodynamic aircraft such as fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which produce lift by moving a wing through the air, aerostatic aircraft, such as airships and hot air balloons, stay aloft by filling a large cavity with a lifting gas. Airships made a rapid resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s after they were adopted for military usage by the world's superpowers. Later on, they once again became a method of travel for much of the population, particularly for luxury journeys and scientific missions.
Early Years (1785 to 1950)
Lighter-than-air vehicles had been experimented with for centuries. The first of which trace back to Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier, who cross the English Channel in a primitive airship in 1785. Throughout the 1800s, experimentation was done to make lighter-than-air travel practical as inventors tackled problems of lift and propulsion. The Golden Age of airships began in 1900 with the introduction of the Zeppelin airships, developed by the German Count von Zeppelin. These quickly spread around the world and were used for travel and, during World War I, combat. The spread of airships continued after the war, but halted abruptly in 1937 after the Hindenburg crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Airship development only continued in the Soviet Union and United States until after the war.
In 1950, Japan was grappling with a new military challenge. Due to their vast gains after the war, they were now required to patrol large areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans continually, at least until allied air and naval forces could be built up enough to take up the task. As a solution to this problem, scientists within the Japanese Imperial Air Force proposed to develop dirigibles with the intent purpose of constant reconnaissance over large areas of ocean. Thanks to new developments in radar and sonar technology, airships offered a perfect, and fairly inexpensive, solution. By 1953, airship production began with factories set up in Japan, China, and Indonesia. Training programs also began across the APDO to man these airships.
In 1954, other nations had begun to take notice of the Japanese airship program. Other countries, particularly the United States, recognized its military potential and began their own program. Some countries, such as East and West Germany, looked back to their previous involvement in airships and restarted their commercial industries. Ultimately by 1958, airship industries had been reformed across the developed world, and even in other unlikely countries such as Argentina and Egypt.
The 1960s were an era of unprecedented growth for the airship industry. To the surprise of many, slow-moving airships were not outcompeted by much faster heavier-than-air airplanes. Instead, each took up different roles. Airships primarily were used for luxury trips, similar to cruise lines. In addition, they were used for specialty applications, such as low flight activities, that airplanes could not perform. In an interesting twist, they also became an addition to major city scapes. In order to circumvent the impossibility of a floating building, airships began to appear in major cities, first as ultraexclusive clubs and later everything else.
Currently, airships are used for a variety of purposes, though these purposes have not changed much since the 1960s. They are commonly seen across Asia and Africa as cheap methods of travel and airspace monitoring. Advances in airship technology are lowering their price enabling wealthy individuals to own their own luxury aircruisers. In addition, armed airships are in commonly used by the major militaries of the world. They are used for surveillance, command & control, aircraft deployment, and airborne artillery.
After their re-introduction to the militaries of the world in the 1950s, airships were exclusively used for reconnaissance purposes. However, their uses have been greatly expanded in recent decades. It was the Soviets who first experimented with once again using airships as bombers, as they were in World War I. Bombing from airships is still somewhat inaccurate due to the lack of velocity generated by the airship itself. However, using airships as a missile platform has proved to be very successful and they are capable of launching and intercepting missiles. Later, the Americans expanded this concept into an missile defense airship that could intercept various assortments of missiles, from anti-tank to ICBMs.
In the 1970s, the Japanese, following their tradition of creative aircraft deployments, built and tested an "airship carrier." Similar in principle to an ocean-going aircraft carrier, the airship carrier could carry numerous aircraft inside its hangar and deploy them while in flight. At first, launches were somewhat difficult because of the height and immediate drop after takeoff, but the use of altered takeoff and landing systems, new training methods, and slight aircraft modifications had made it a practical endeavor. Thanks to the lower costs of airships versus aircraft carriers, many have been built by the Japanese IAF for use in their new air fleets. Other nations followed Japan's lead and developed airship carriers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Due to their relatively low cost, many nations, such as Germany, Peru, Mexico, Sweden, Iran, and New Zealand, have been able to build and/or buy airship carriers for their own military uses.
Beginning in the 1990s with the advent of stealth technology, new attempts were made to decrease the radar signature of military airships and render them truly stealthy. Changes to airship design along with new coating materials enabled some level of stealth to be achieved. These developments have vastly increased the lethality of airship weaponry which together with their range have made them among the primary vehicles for military deployment.
In the future, many dream of a much expanded future for airships. Based on airship technology, some are designing large, floating habitats for people, along with everything they would need in life. Also, much more elaborate airship designs are being planned, such as one km-long airships for mass transportation. Increased cargo flights are being planned as a way to decrease costs of transportation in the face of rising oil prices as well.