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Airship development receives little attention today in the country which produced the first successful designs


A SEMI-RIGID AIRSHIP, THE E-9, of French construction

A SEMI-RIGID AIRSHIP, THE E-9, of French construction. The capacity is about 350,000 cubic feet, the length just over 262 feet and the diameter at the largest point approximately fifty-two feet. The maximum speed of the airship is sixty-eight miles an hour, and the cruising speed fifty-six miles an hour. A crew of eight is normally carried.

WORLD aerostatics, as we know it today, was born in France. In 1782 and 1783 the brothers Montgolfier, conducted successful experiments with hot-air balloons. In 1783 the French physicist, J. A. C. Charles, constructed a balloon filled with hydrogen. After preliminary experiments, both types of balloon made flights with passengers.

Other experimenters took up the fascinating problem of a navigable air vessel, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when mechanics had advanced sufficiently to enable a machine driven by motors to be built, that the development of modern aircraft began. To Henri Giffard, the French engineer, must be given the credit for having taken practical advantage of this progress.

In 1852 he built a spindle-shaped airship with a capacity of 70,500 cubic feet. It was 144 ft. 6 in. long and of 39 ft. 5 in. diameter. It had two wing propellers 10 feet in diameter. The machine had the appearance somewhat reminiscent of a circus trapeze; for, about 19 feet below the gasbag, a rod 65 feet long was suspended. The car hung from this rod at a distance of 11½ feet. Driven by a steam engine of 3 horse-power, the airship underwent satisfactory trials and attained an independent speed of from five to six miles an hour.

The development of lighter-than-air craft proceeded apace, and in 1872 the airship built by the German Paul Haenlein used a small gas engine of about 2.8 horse-power. This paved the way for the building and launching of La France, the French non-rigid airship to which belongs the distinction of having been the first power-driven aircraft to make a successful flight and return to its starting-point.

This ship was 168 feet long; the greatest diameter near the bows was 26 ft. 9 in. and the volume was 65,240 feet. A two-bladed propeller, of 29 ft. 6 in. diameter, was fixed in front of the ship and was driven by a 9 horse-power Gramme electric motor.

The airship was constructed and flown by Captain Charles Renard and by Captain Arthur Krebs, of the French Army. Renard was director of the French military balloon establishment of Chalais-Meudon, near Paris. As the trial of this ship clearly proved certain possibilities of flight which up to that day had been pure theory, the following short account taken from the Renard’s report, is of particular interest today.

La France left the ground at 4.15 p.m. on August 9, 1884. The wind prevailing was east, three miles an hour. The airship carried, in addition to her normal machinery (motor, propeller, batteries, movable counterweight and so forth), 330 lb. of ballast and a silk landing cable 260 feet in length.

As the envelope had been inflated in poor conditions, it did not have the expected lift. It was therefore found necessary, on this first flight, to reduce the number of cells in the driving battery.

Instead of 112 cells weighing 1,232 lb., only sixty-four cells weighing 704 lb. were taken up. These sixty-four cells were subdivided into four groups of sixteen, capable of functioning separately, in pairs, or all four together.

When the ship had risen to 165 feet the motor was started, and only two of the four groups were used. First she was steered in easterly direction, then by a gradual change of direction towards the plateau on the south side of Chalais Park. Petit-Biertre and Villacoublay were soon reached; from here the airship began to turn round for the return journey to Chalais.

The turn was executed perfectly. The airship, retracing her outward path, followed approximately, though in the opposite direction, the route she had taken to reach the most distant point of her flight. After twenty-five minutes, the airship floated at a height of 825 feet exactly above her point of departure. She attained a speed of fifteen miles an hour, and the demonstration had been conclusive.

The trial flight clearly proved that it was possible to build a long airship having sufficient stability, that such airships could be driven and steered like sea vessels, that the operations of taking off and coming down could be easily performed, and that it was easy to keep the airship at a constant height. It was proved also that flying speed could be obtained sufficient to give perfect steering control in a great number of instances and all the important changes in others.

The construction of new and improved craft went on at full speed, and in the last years of the nineteenth century Germany and France were racing for supremacy in the new aerial field.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, who built in all fourteen airships, succeeded, in October 1902, in flying from St. Cloud, Paris, round the Eiffel Tower and back to the starting point in 30 minutes 41 seconds. He was awarded the Deutsch de la Meutthe prize of 100,000 francs (then worth £4,000).

A few days later the Lebaudy airship (see the chapter “Types of Airship”) made her first ascent and the French army continued with this type until the loss of the Republique in 1909.

Commercial Company Formed

No more money was forthcoming from the Government and it looked as if development must cease. A French newspaper, however, obtained subscriptions and raised enough money to give France two new airships, the Temps and the Capitaine Ferber, which proved to be much superior to their predecessors. These ships were a stimulus to the airship builders. Towards the end of 1912 were produced the ships of 320,000 cubic feet which the French Army had at the beginning of the war of 1914-18.

A commercial company, the Compagnie Generate Transaerienne, was formed. The company bought and operated an Astra-Torres ship called the Ville de Lucerne. This ship made 267 flights, carried 2,590 passengers and covered 4,960 miles without accident of any kind.

When war broke out France had a small fleet of airships which during the year 1913-14 had practised the discharge of projectiles and the bombarding of fortified towns. The most celebrated of this fleet was the Adjudant Vincenot, under the command of Captain Joux, later General Joux and head of a department.

This ship was a non-rigid of 320,000 cubic feet driven by two engines of 120 horsepower, with a speed of not more than 36 miles an hour. She carried a crew of seven, 660 lb. of explosives and petrol for twelve hours. She was armed with guns of the 1886 model and two machine-guns for

defence against possible attack from enemy aircraft. The bombs or projectiles were 155-mm shells.

On August 8, 1914, the Adjudant Vincenot carried out the first reconnaissance flight in Lorraine. On the following evening the airship Fleurus I carried out the first air raid of the war, and in history, by dropping four 155-mm. shells in German territory on Konz-Kartaus. On this first raid all the cantonments, the bivouacs, and even the advance-guard were lit up. The trains, although they ran with all lights out, could not hide the feeble but noticeable glow of the fireboxes of their engines.

The reaction of the enemy was negligible. There were some shots but they soon stopped because the troops quickly realized that they were betraying their position. On the other hand the French soldiers, not knowing what was going on, did not imagine that there could be any other airships than the “monsters” of Count Zeppelin and often mistook their own ships for the enemy. The low altitude of the French ships when returning to their base gave their artillery a power of attack which the German gunners had not been able to attain.

STABILIZER PLANES were fitted to the French airship Adjudant Vincenot

STABILIZER PLANES were fitted to the Adjudant Vincenot, n airship built before the war of 1914—18. The Adjudant Vincenot was used with considerable success in reconnaissance and bombing flights in the early part of the war. The airship was of the non-rigid type, with a capacity of 320,000 cubic feet, and had a top speed of not more than thirty-six miles an hour.

In was in these conditions that the Adjudant Vincenot made seventeen flights from August to October 1914. The most remarkable and effective oi these was that of August 19, on the eve of the battle of Morhange. In the course of this battle the airship found in the district of Nebing-Lostroff signs of extreme activity and nervoussness on the part of the enemy. This was at once reported to the Headquarters of the French Second Army.

In the meantime the other airships had not been idle. The Dupuy De Lome, commanded by Captain Leroy, had made several scouting flights and raids in Belgium. The Montgolfier, operating from St. Cyr, carried out a series of raids, one of which lasted for twelve hours. The Fleurus I operated round Verdun and the Conte, from Epinal, under the command of Captain Frugier, raided Sarrebourg and Henning.

During this time ships of 800,000 cubic feet had been built but proved at their trials to be technical failures and were condemned. Ships of 500,000 cubic feet, which were less ambitious but would give much superior results, were constructed from the material of the failures.

Air raids had now become an accepted part of warfare and both sides became wary. They extinguished all lights capable of giving a clue to their whereabouts even before the airship approached. Gunfire became more exact and better supplied with information and attacks were numerous every time the ships went out. Because of this, everything possible was done to increase the height at which the ships could fly. Moreover, instead of selecting nights of full moonlight, as had been previously done, less clear and even dark nights were eventually preferred. The airships flew with all lights out. If an airship commander was bold enough to neglect these rules he suffered as did the Alsace.

The Alsace was one of the new ships of 500,000 cubic feet and had already carried out several raids. On the night of October 2, 1916, she was struck by a German shell and forced to land in the enemy’s lines; the crew were taken prisoner.

Taken Over by French Navy

Between August 1914 and March 1917 French airships carried out sixty-two raids over enemy country with a loss of only two airships and ten officers and men killed.

At this period aeroplanes were beginning to be able to do a certain amount of night raiding; on the other hand the airship was becoming an essential and indispensable element in the fight against the German submarines. In March 1917 the French Navy took over the airships, with their pilots and crews.

Over the sea the airships, like the allied airships in Great Britain (see the chapter “British Airships”), were used on anti-submarine patrol, convoy and mine searching duties, cooperating when and where possible with the British airship Service until the end of the war. Since the war France, unlike England, has retained her airship service. In July 1919 the Transaerienne Company resumed operations with a V-Zodiac airship, similar to the Astra-Torres. This ship operated between St. Cyr, Le Havre and Deauville, and in three months carried 218 passengers.

The German L 72 was handed over to France and became known as the Dixmude. She was lost in December 1923 with a crew of fifty-three on board. She had made a successful flight of fifteen hours and had then achieved two endurance flights of fifty-four and 118¾ hours respectively. This ship certainly promised well. She left to carry out an instructional cruise to the Sahara, but did not return.

If the advice of the Germans about this ship had been taken, the disaster would never have happened. When delivering the L 70 class of ship after the Armistice, the Zeppelin Company advised that they should not be flown at speed at low altitudes or in bad weather. The ships had been built for bombing purposes, and the density of the air at such heights had been taken into consideration when designing the structure.

In 1921 France received from Germany the commercial airship Nordstern, but made no use of this ship. Lack of money has prevented the French airship Service from developing. Only minor improvements have recently been made. It has, however, produced the world’s finest motor kite balloon.

AN AIRSHIP of the type built by France during the war

AN AIRSHIP OF 800,000 CUBIC FEET CAPACITY of the type built by France during the war. The type proved unsatisfactory. One of these, the Pilatre de Rozier, shown here, was cut in halves to form two smaller airships, each of 500,000 cubic feet capacity. Alsace was the name given to one of the new ships: she was struck by a shell and forced to land in German territory on the night of October 2, 1916.

You can read more on “British Airships”, “How Airships are Flown” and

“Types of Airship” on this website.

French Airships