January 7, 2015 – You would be forgiven for thinking that airships lived on only in steampunk fantasies or celluloid – in films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But like other forms of transportation technology that we assumed was moribund only to return from the dead like a horror-movie villain – trams, maglevs, double-decker buses, propeller planes – airships are back.
Only last month, Nasa floated plans for the so-called High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (Havoc). The project envisages a space station in the sky, hovering in the atmosphere above the planet Venus, re-supplied by airships that look like Zeppelins. Artists’ impressions of the idea scream 1915 more than 2015, but perhaps dreamers such as Jules Verne and the real-life airship pioneers were just way ahead of their time?
At Cardington Airfield, on the outskirts of Bedford, the story has come full circle. It was here that Britain built the R101 airship nearly a century ago. The hangars are being repainted bright green and restored to their former glory. They are so vast that they are almost beyond comprehension – some of the biggest buildings in Britain, they could fit whole cathedrals inside them. The airships constructed here were initially wildly successful – they became symbols of modernism, like the hangars which held them, and began a process of rapid globalisation: the Empire State Building’s mast was designed as an airship docking point in Midtown Manhattan. But the R101 crashed in France in 1930, killing 48, and, following the Hindenburg disaster seven years later, when the German airship caught fire and killed 36 people, airships were sidelined. Some returned in later years, mainly as “blimps” designed to hover above cricket or baseball stadiums and film the match.