Dirigibles, Zeppelins, and Blimps:
The Differences Explained
What is a Dirigible?
A dirigible is any lighter-than-air craft that is both powered and steerable (as opposed to free floating, like a balloon). Blimps like the Goodyear blimp, rigid airships like the Hindenburg, and semi-rigid airships like the Zeppelin NT are all dirigibles.
The word “dirigible” is often associated with large rigid airships, but the term does not come from the word “rigid” but rather the French verb diriger (“to steer”).
What is a Rigid Airship?
A rigid airship has a framework surrounding one or more individual gas cells, and maintains its shape by virtue of its rigid framework and not the pressure of its lifting gas.
The photograph to the left of the United States Navy airship USS Shenandoah under construction shows its rigid metal framework; a partially inflated gas cell; and the fabric covering applied over the frame to protect the gas cells and provide aerodynamic streamlining.
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin is considered the father of the rigid airship but not all rigid airships are “zeppelins.”
What is a Zeppelin?
A zeppelin is a rigid airship manufactured by a particular company, the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of Germany (the “Zeppelin Airship Construction Company”), which was founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
The LZ-129 Hindenburg was a zeppelin; “LZ” stands for “Luftschiff Zeppelin” and the Hindenburg was the 129th airship designed by the Zeppelin Company. The American naval ships USS Akron and USS Macon may also be referred to as zeppelins since they were built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin joint venture.
The term zeppelin is especially associated with the German airships that conducted bombing raids during World War I; while most of these ships were in fact built by the Zeppelin Company, the German military also used rigid airships of very different design which were not “zeppelins” and which were built by the Schutte-Lanz and Parseval companies.
Zeppelins still fly today. The new Goodyear airship — built by a direct descendant of the same company that built Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg — is perhaps the best known zeppelin in the skies.
A blimp (technically called a “pressure airship”) is a powered, steerable, lighter-than-air vehicle whose shape is maintained by the pressure of the gases within its envelope. A blimp has no rigid internal structure; if a blimp deflates, it loses its shape.
Blimps are best known today for their role as advertising and promotional vehicles. Goodyear began using blimps to advertise their brand in 1925, and The Lightship Group has operated promotional blimps for various companies over the past 20 years. But blimps have also played an important role in the armed forces of many countries. For example, United States Navy’s lighter-than-air program made extensive use of blimps from the 1920s through the 1950s, primarily in anti-submarine and reconnaissance roles.
Was the Hindenburg a blimp?
The Hindenburg is often called “blimp” but that is not correct; Hindenburg was a rigid airship which maintained its shape by means of a metal framework, and not from the pressure of the gas within its hull.
What is a Semi-Rigid Airship?
A semi-rigid airship, like a blimp, maintains its aerodynamic shape from internal gas pressure, but it has a partial rigid frame, usually in the form of a keel, which supports and distributes loads and provides structural integrity during maneuvering.
Other famous semi-rigid airships from history include the Norge (of polar explorer Roald Amundsen) and the Italia (of Umberto Nobile).