377. Darkening of the light (VII)
Time and again we return to the airship. If aeroplanes were to disappear tomorrow I doubt many people would express wistful desire to return to economy-class flights; and yet, even though airships only enjoyed a limited success in the 1930s, people return to the airship as an ideal and view it with affection. Sporadic attempts are made to make airships commercially viable—none seem to succeed; yet people continue to talk about the airship with wonder and admiration.
The primary reason why people prefer airships lies in the vessel’s organic nature. Aeroplanes make a very definite attempt to force their way into the air; we only achieved powered flight when engineers stood back from nature—made no more prototypes based on bird flight—and worked from greatly simplified principles. Yes, the wings on an aeroplane work on the same principle as bird flight, but man’s wings only work because we do not slavishly try to copy the precise way a bird flies.
As with many technological breakthroughs we copy nature, but the trick is not to copy nature exactly; we just need to work out which principle to take from nature—we take the principles and no more. Nonetheless, aeroplanes are not very elegant; if you hear a passenger jet takeoff then the engines really strain to put it in the air—everything is an effort, and there is a sense that by rights the aeroplane should not be airborne.
Airships, by contrast, belong in the air. The aeroplane or aircraft belongs to its own class; it is a craft in the air, or, as with “aeroplane”, it is a wanderer in the air—the “-plane” being derived from the Greek for “wanderer”. An airship is a ship: it appeals to what is older—it appeals to maritime tradition. As with an actual ship, the airship depends on the winds for movement and it is also buoyant—buoyant in air rather than water. Indeed, the airship uses elements from air—hydrogen, helium—to move about in the air; so there is a sense that it belongs in the sky in a way an aircraft never can. Airships relate to the air organically; an airship is rather akin to a whale in the sky—and it is easy to imagine schools of airships in the sky; indeed, many science-fiction stories feature just such a situation, the futuristic metropolis with a sky studded by airships.
Since the airship belongs in the air it can be leisurely; the airship has an aristocratic mien; it could lounge over the Atlantic for a month—or it could dash across in two or three days. The airship has grace and will not be hurried, although it is still faster than ground-based transport. Hence we also associate the airship with luxury, with the transatlantic airships being closer to ocean liners than aircraft. You could take a stretch to the restaurant section and spread your legs out…In today’s airliners, we are packed tighter and tighter; the challenge is to fit more and more people into a smaller and smaller space. The passengers are like veal calves, perhaps sandwiched semi-upright between closely situated chairs. As airlines become more ruthless about space the travelling public has become more porcine; it is harder than ever to ooze your flab into economy-class seats.
So the airship is what we want from flight: elegant and in keeping with the element in which you travel. Of course, sailing ships are the same way and there are dangers associated with those, and there are dangers associated with a seat on a jet airliner—aviation fuel is very flammable, as flammable as hydrogen. We refuse to go back to the airship because it is too effortless, too noble, too exclusive, and too beautiful; even its dangers could doubtless be mitigated by modern materials. And every evening when we look up in the sky we know what we are missing; the red sunlight reflected off shoal upon shoal of airships above our city.