Airships, Dirigibles, Zeppelins, & Blimps:
What’s the Difference?

What is an Airship?

An airship is any powered, steerable aircraft that it is inflated with a gas that is lighter than air.

What is a Dirigible?

“Airship” and “dirigible” are synonyms; a dirigible is any lighter-than-air craft that is powered and steerable, as opposed to free floating like a balloon.

The word “dirigible” is often associated with rigid airships but the term does not come from the word “rigid” but from the French verb diriger (“to steer”).

Dirigibles include rigid airships (like the Hindenburg), semi-rigid airships (like the Zeppelin NT), and blimps (like the Goodyear blimp).

What is a Blimp?

A blimp (technically 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.

The author, Dan Grossman, with U.S. Navy blimp MZ-3A.

Airships.net author Dan Grossman with the U.S. Navy blimp MZ-3A. (Photo: JB-MDL Public Affairs)

Today, blimps are best known as advertising vehicles — Goodyear began using blimps to advertise their brand in 1925 — but blimps have also played an important role in the armed forces of many countries; the U.S. Navy’s lighter-than-air program made extensive use of blimps, primarily in anti-submarine and reconnaissance roles, from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Was the Hindenburg a Blimp?

No, the Hindenburg is often called “blimp” but that is not correct; Hindenburg was a rigid airship that maintained its shape by means of a metal framework.

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 the framework and not from the pressure of its lifting gas.

This photograph of the U.S. Navy airship Shenandoah under construction illustrates the ship’s metal framework, a partially inflated gas cell, and the fabric outer covering that protected the gas cells and provided aerodynamic streamlining:

USS Shenandoah under construction

USS Shenandoah under construction, showing rigid framework, individual gas cells, and fabric covering

This drawing of U.S.S. Shenandoah illustrates the various parts of a rigid airship:

USS Shenandoah

Drawing of U.S.S. Shenandoah from the January 1925 issue of The National Geographic Magazine.

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”), founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Ferdinand von Zeppelin is considered the father of the rigid airship, but not all rigid airships are “zeppelins,” just as not all photocopiers are “Xerox” machines.

German Navy Zeppelin L-13 (LZ-45). Drawing by Norbert Andrup.

German Navy Zeppelin L-13 (LZ-45). Drawing by Norbert Andrup.

The term zeppelin is often associated with the German airships that conducted bombing raids during World War I, but while most of these ships were built by the Zeppelin Company, not all German WWI airships were zeppelins; the German military also used rigid airships of very different design built by the Schutte-Lanz and Parseval companies.

One of history’s most famous zeppelins was LZ-129 Hindenburg. (“LZ” stands for “Luftschiff Zeppelin” and “129” indicates that Hindenburg was the 129th airship designed by the Zeppelin Company.) Because the American naval ships USS Akron and USS Macon were built by a Goodyear-Zeppelin joint venture, they are sometimes referred to as zeppelins as well.

Zeppelins still fly today; in fact the new Goodyear airship is a not a blimp but a zeppelin, built by a descendant of the same company that built Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg.

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.

Semi-rigid airship Norge

Semi-rigid airship Norge

Famous semi-rigid airships include Norge of polar explorer Roald Amundsen and Italia of Umberto Nobile. The modern Zeppelin NT is also a semi-rigid airship.

Goodyear’s newest airship, a Zeppelin NT, lifts off for its first flight on March 17, 2014. (photo: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company)

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Pamela Conner
Pamela Conner

I would really like it if someone could verify this. When I was a young child living on Long Island NY. In Syosset NY. I went outside probably because there was some commotion outside…people were out on their lawns looking at the sky…there were intense and very low clouds very… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela

This might not have been a blimp. It was rigid. It was all silver grey and you could see a rigid structure over the entire surface in what looked like panels very big long panels. It was huge you could only make out the first part of this thing through… Read more »

Dave
Dave

Wait… What is the big balloon called?

Kyle
Kyle

Its called the Envelope

alex

what where blimps used for in the war

Noah
Noah

they were also temporarily used to be flying airfields that carried planes midair, I think there are multiple vids on youtube about this. I believe the concept is amazing.

Rick Dean
Rick Dean

The DoD still does the research into use of LTA aircraft. There are three hangars at Lakehurst capable of housing the large blimps, and two of them have housed blimps within at least the last 5years.

Felipe
Felipe

Development of airships, for cargo transport purposes in infrastructure lacking regions, is aldo underway here in Brasil.
In fact, if you check out “airship do brasil” on youtube you’ll see they already have a working vehicle.

Stu
Stu

Second question: With large semi rigids like the Norge, Italia and Roma, did they maintain inner hull pressure and stability with ballonets like the new Zeppelin does? And was the inside of the envelope one giant chamber, or divided chambers? I would imagine with hulls as large as that, the… Read more »

Stu
Stu

Excellent article. I have two questions: 1. In rigid airships of the 1930’s, the individual gas cells were contained tightly inside the outer hull structure. What I am not entirely certain of is how the lifting load of the gas cell was transmitted to the outer hull. With blimps, there… Read more »

Mike
Mike

To Stu “What I am not entirely certain of is how the lifting load of the gas cell was transmitted to the outer hull.” What keeps a lighter than air craft up is that it is lighter than air. The total weight of the craft is less than the weight… Read more »

Stu Timm
Stu Timm

Thanks for the clarification on the proper terminology for these LTA craft. Now if only Goodyear’s PR staff would learn the proper name in describing their new LTA fleet.

Ida Valdez
Ida Valdez

Thanks to all for your highly informative comments. However, I did not see any reference to NAST (Naval Air Station Tillamook) now known as Tillamook Air Museum. It is the very well preserved Hanger B completed 8/15/43 after almost 9 months. Hanger A was completed in 27 working days on… Read more »

SP
SP

Hi DAN, I’m curious, with such extensive background history about lighter than air airships, why aren’t they exactly available commercially globally? (Like not just for advertising but for something like cruises or for recreational purposes) (tbh i think everyone likes to see a big gigantic flying thing outside their windows… Read more »

Michelle Chandler
Michelle Chandler

I have acquired items and belongings in a “Lane Cedar Chest”. Some items are of the BLIMP. There are 2 large manila envelopes with a Large round stamp that reads(on the outside of the round stamp) “Protect our good Name(top of stamp) Goodyear Aerospace(bottom of stamp) and (in the middle… Read more »