Balloons and Airships: A Tale of Lighter Than Air Aviation

by Anthony Burton

“How was man to get off the ground? The answer already existed in China and had done so since at least the third century BC, when they made flying lanterns, devices we still have today and simply know as Chinese lanterns. A small lamp is placed at the bottom of a paper balloon and as the air in the balloon heats up, it rises because the hot air is lighter than the surrounding atmospheric air. Chinese lanterns are simply small hot air balloons.”

. . . Always with the balloons, those Chinese.

Many technical problems have been solved since the early days but a big one remains: even when piloted, a balloon is not precisely steerable. Ah, but an airship is, and it has so many other advantages, and you will be able to speak with authority on the subject after having read this book. 

Many books deal with LTA (Lighter Than Air) but only this one has an author who has about a hundred TV documentaries on industrial and transport subjects under his belt and thereby honed an admirably fluid way of propelling a story along. That said, it will behoove the reader to pause every now and then to let some ideas percolate that the book, being limited in space and thus scope, only skims. For instance, the brothers Montgolfier are towering figures in the history of ballooning. We’re coming up on the 1780s. What was the state of science then? Josef M. “knew,” from observation, that heated air expands. He theorized that the potency of the effect was related to what sort of materials were being burned: if a mix of chopped wool and damp straw was good, why wouldn’t a mix of old shoes and rotting meat be better since, judging by smell, they produced more potent gases? Full marks for working the problem. Today we know about molecular structure and know he was wrong—but if he hadn’t believed that ballooning would change world affairs, where would we be?

If you can steer a boat with oars, why not a balloon?

Buried deep in the book is a remark that further elevates Burton’s competency as a writer on this subject: he was trained as an RAF navigator, meaning he has an acute understanding of atmospheric events at different altitudes, the very key to understanding the merits and limitations of LTA aviation. Both balloons and airships are still today effective tools for specific jobs, i.e. not merely as sporting or leisure activities, and the airship in particular has still untapped commercial potential because of their range and fuel economy. This book makes the full arc from monks hurtling themselves from towers to test their theories of flight to the current Lockheed hybrid airship LMH-1 that can haul 47,000 lb of payload up to 1,400 nm, reaching and operating in remote places not accessible any other way.

The fastest transatlantic ship could make 25 knots/ 27 mph. An airship easily topped that. And both were done in by the airliner. Progress . . .

Technical and operational factors are described in good detail, as are military applications, especially WWI. The early days especially delve vividly into the colorful human side of the story, the scientists and also the charlatans who got this idea off the ground. It’s an all-around pleasant book to read, to look at, and thanks to its glossy paper and slim size, to handle.

Many if not most of our readers are not casual users of books and for their sake the following comment is unavoidable: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t . . . we’re talking about the necessarily arbitrary art of indexing. The book has one, so, hooray! But not so fast. For example, one page (153; there are others) mentions three airships, but only one is in the Index. Two of them had been discussed in the same context, a handful of words apart. Is the indexer implying that the omitted one was less important than the other? Is it an oversight? Any researcher using a book will always go to the Index first . . . if someone went to the trouble of mentioning something in the book then why waste it by burying it?

Balloons and Airships: A Tale of Lighter Than Air Aviation
by Anthony Burton
Pen and Sword Aviation, 2019    [In US: Casemate]
216 pages, 33 b/w & 16 color illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $49.95 /  £25
ISBN-13: 978-1526719492

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