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Airships (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

The Japanese have bought the first new Zeppelin since 1938. Yes, that's right a Zeppelin. The company didn't fold when their Hindenburg failed, instead it became a multi-billion dollar construction company. And they've begun making zeppelins again. Does this mean the air will fill again with airships?

For years I've been writing a book about an airship, Knowing this my friends have communicated to me instantaneously any airship news. So over ten years I've heard of many airship revivals. The airship industry collapsed in 1937 when the Hindenburg exploded, yet in every decade since their demise engineers have tried to revive airships. Why, in this age of jets?

Well, airships can lift great weights cheaply; ferrying goods, for example, from ships at sea, thus getting rid of expensive harbors. And airships pollute less and are quieter than jets. Each new airship proposed has reflected these strengths, but also in each decade the proposals reflected the interests of the time.

In the 1950s and 60s - a time when nuclear bombs preoccupied our minds - an engineering professor came up with a nuclear powered airship.

In the 1970s the so-called "Third World" rose in our consciousness: In that era engineers designed a radial airship that took off like a jet, yet floated and lifted like an airship. The minister behind this failed project saw it as a vast warehouse in the sky from which he could bring all nations into the 20th century by a single leap: no need for roads, railroads, airports, warehouses, or harbors.

In the 1980s Engineers proposed using airships and blimps to halt ozone depletion over the South Pole. They planned to hang live electrical wires from the ships to zap ozone-eating chemicals.

And in this age they've proposed using blimps as communication satellites. Now the mighty Zeppelin airship has risen again.

Is this new Zeppelin a true revival? Most likely its just a symptom of what's called "helium head" disease. To be a "helium head" means you've fallen in love with lighter-than-air travel - airships, blimps, dirigibles, or zeppelins. And in them you see an instant and easy solution to nearly all the world's transportation problems. This disease of helium-headiness has afflicted humankind for over a hundred years -- and likely will continue for as long as humans move about the globe.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises