The Green Way to Fly

Airships could carry food, drugs, supplies and construction equipment to the Canadian North in all seasons at a fraction of the cost of road and plane transportation.

I [Silver Donald Cameron] recently finished re-reading – overnight, almost in one sitting, and mostly on my phone – John McPhee’s wonderful book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. I first read it around 40 years ago, soon after its publication in 1973. Like much of McPhee’s work, it has stayed with me not as a book but as an experience, an evergreen literary memory. The second reading was just about as good as the first.

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed is the story of a group of men devoted to airships – blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins. They believed first, that the airships should never have been marginalized and abandoned, and second, that a new form they called “aeron” – which blended lighter-than-air vehicles with modern aerodynamics – would have even more incredible carrying capacity and flexibility. Such an Aeron would carry vast amounts of freight – or people – at low altitudes and modest speeds without any need for the whole infrastructure of roads, bridges and similar structures which our current transportation system requires. It would comfortably traverse forest and tundra, rock and water, crossing oceans, cities and Arctic terrain equally smoothly and cheaply.

These enthusiasts were – and are — right. In fact, there was actually no overwhelming need for a new invention; the airships that were in service a century ago did all those things and more – and what really drew me back to the book  was McPhee’s account of that background. For instance, I wanted to re-read a passage about the last great voyage of a US naval airship, when the Navy was trying to find an excuse to end their use. The chosen vehicle, a blimp called Snowbird, took off from the Naval Air Station at South Weymouth, Massachusetts, on March 4, 1957. It flew through gales, snow, freezing rain, heavy fog, desert sun and tropical storms. It burned about 7 gallons of fuel per hour, roughly the same as a smallish fishing boat.  It visited four continents, crossing to Europe, then flying south to Africa, westward to the Lesser Antilles and north to Florida. It was bound for Massachusetts when the Navy ordered it down in Florida. With 15 men aboard, it had flown for 11 days, covering 9,448 miles, a record that stood for many years as the longest unrefuelled flight, both in time and distance, ever made in the earth’s atmosphere.  Try that in a jet.

McPhee also provides an account of a transatlantic voyage in a huge Zeppelin. The voyage is downright magical. The trip took two and a half days. The airship was as long as an ocean liner. Cruising at 75 MPH, it was almost silent, and the ride was so stable that a milk bottle inverted on a table in Germany had not fallen over when the ship docked in New York. The accommodations were spacious – a writing room, a smoking room, a grand piano, fine dining and pleasant wines. Passengers could lower the windows and wave to people on the ground. The ship flew so low that it startled cows in Prince Edward Island and cyclists on the Isle of Man.

The Zeppelins provided regularly-scheduled passenger service across the Atlantic for thirty years without a single accident. The Graf Zeppelin, built in 1928, flew 1,053,391 miles, including one complete circuit of the earth. In nine years, it spent 17,000 hours aloft, and carried 13,000 passengers. The only fatalities in the entire history of airships occurred when the Hindenburg burned completely in 34 seconds in 1936, an event reported live on radio. Even then, of the 97 people aboard, 61 survived – but the fire, and the horrified radio report, put an end to the airships. MORE


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