Life Aboard an Airship

“USS Akron (ZRS-4) approaches the mooring mast, while landing at Sunnyvale, California (USA), 13 May 1932.” Source: By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was researching a technical point in my novel (for verisimilitude’s sake), realizing I was making some assumptions about technology during the 1930s and ’40s that I actually hadn’t researched–like whether or not airships had any hydraulic systems in place (a minor plot point in my WIP).  Anyhow, I came across a comment by a man named “Stu” on an article at about the Hindenburg, and I thought it was very interesting.  He was responding to another reader’s questions about airship rudders and elevators.

Here’s what he said:

[…T]he rudders and elevators are the directional and vertical control surfaces of the airship, usually located on the tail fins in the after-portions of the airship. The elevators are the horizontal tail fins that nave control surfaces on them to direct airflow off the tail fin either up or downwards to lift of drop the tail of the airship and change it’s pitch. The rudders are the same except in the vertical plane, where they push the tail of the airship right or left. In the old, grand rigid airships of the 20’s and 30’s, the elevator and rudder controls were separately manned and operated.

Airships back then were commanded, not piloted. The “flight deck” of control room of the airship was run very much like the bridge or wheelhouse of a steamship of the day. A commanding officer would direct three to four persons in the control room to fly the airship. The rudderman’s post was at the forward-most part of the control gondola, and the elevatorman’s post was usually located just aft, on the port or left side of the control car, facing out the left side of the control car, not forward. There was also a crewman who monitored the engine telegraphs which sent messages to the individual engine cars from the control room. Lastly, there was a crewman who monitored the ballast panel and kept the ship’s static condition in check. There was also a navigator located nearby as well as a radio man, again, all set up based on the operational methodology of a ship at sea, not a piloted aircraft.

All the men in the control room were usually officers of some sort or another. It took years of training to man these posts. The elevatorman in the Hindenburg earned his pay by keeping the ship absolutely level while in flight to prevent glasses and things from falling off tables. That was a bragging point for the airship against the steamship passenger liner – no seasickness!

The large control surfaces of these airships were controlled by cables that were run the length of the ship through a complicated series of sheaves and pulleys. Large counterweights attached to the control surfaces balanced the huge fins so that human arms could operate the fins. They can be seen on the USS Akron and Macon. There was no electrical or hydraulic assist on these control surfaces, and many times, two men had to handle the controls in heavy weather. It was a laborious task to hold the rudder and elevator wheels from spinning out of control against the wind forces acting on the fins. When catastrophe happened, the cables linking the control surfaces to the gondola’s control room typically carried away, and the steering wheels inside the gondola spun uselessly. This was a sure indication to those in the control room that something bad was happening aft.

Lastly, men in the control room stood at their posts during their entire watch. There were no huge banks of gauges and dials like in a old B-17 bomber in the control room of an airship. Contrast this to the flight deck of the Zeppelin NT, which has a seated pilot / copilot positions with joystick controls much like an airplane.

Pretty fascinating stuff, don’t you think?  A little insight into the attitudes and culture of airship crews as compared to seamen or airplane pilots.

Anyway, for those who are interested in airships, just thought I’d share. 🙂


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