Guest Blog: Airships Will Always Be A Niche Market


By Gianfranco Ghiringhelli

As the potential Chief Pilot and Director of Operations of what would have become the first commercial airship operation in the U.S.—outside of Goodyear—I don’t see a broad application for commercial viability, which in a way is a bit sad. I think airships will always have a niche market and maintain a fascination for anyone who sees one floating across the sky.

In the 1980s, I trained on Airship Industries Skyship 500 and 600 series, obtaining both FAA and British licenses. The proposed scope of our operation was advertising; similar to Goodyear—but available to the general public. The plan would have made use of changeable “Logo” banners affixed to the sides for daytime and a programmable “Night Sign” composed of a series of lights, for night operations.

The idea was to sell ad space at rates for minute/hour/day/week, etc.  I was involved solely in determining the operational feasibility. The financial aspect was handled by others.

Ultimately the project was abandoned but not because of operational constraints. The two parties involved could not come to terms regarding lease/purchase/partnership.

From an operational standpoint, airships are extremely labor intensive, requiring large crews to handle docking and undocking, safety standby while the ship is airborne and constant monitoring while on the mast.

Being lighter than air, airships are extremely sensitive to winds and thermals. Flying over varied terrain subjected to thermals can be extremely demanding on the pilots and is not a pleasant experience. However, flying over vast expanses of water or in cooler, stable air can be quite pleasant, offering some fantastic views.

I had the opportunity to fly extensively in Great Britain and Europe, as well as most of the U.S. I was on the crew that brought the ship from Weeksville, North Carolina, to California. That’s a cross-country for the record books. We were challenged with landings at Demming and Lordsburg, each requiring adjustments to weight and helium.

Most of what I encountered during my time with airships was a lot of theoretical operation by people with little to no actual experience with airships. One of the most common questions I was asked about was logging using airships with long lines. That’s a bad idea on all counts. First and foremost, you do not want to operate in mountains. The winds and thermals will eventually tear you up. As for lifting, the only way to lift would be to jettison ballast. Not something I would want to do.

Do you have an expert opinion on a current topic of interest to AVweb readers? We invite you to submit a guest blog (no more than 1,000 words) with your informative insights. Email to [email protected]

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. My father worked on the Vee-balloon project with Goodyear Aircraft/Aerospace in the 1960s. It worked around winds and lift by being tethered at each end, and having large dynamic lift. It was powered by the pull lines.

  2. Airships are cool, that’s about it.
    If anyone is building an airship, in their garage, I’d like to see it. If you have a garage that big, you’re the envy of the neighborhood.
    The days of advertising, on the side of an airship, are long gone. People are too busy looking down at their phones and not looking up.
    Airship races, now that’s something I’d like to see. Just my speed.

  3. I suspect many would love to do cruise ship like tours aboard a rigid airship. Doubtful I could justify paying what they’d need to charge just to break even. Modern materials and technology are being employed in some interesting new dirigibles. But, there’s the helium / hydrogen thing: Helium being prohibitively expensive and hydrogen has an . . . ah . . . issue. Also, way too vulnerable to normal adverse weather events. Thank goodness for the air-head dreamers out there. (grin)

  4. Having flown aboard one of Goodyear’s airships a few years ago I can say the experience was absolutely divine, and I’m forever grateful to have had the opportunity. Goodyear, of course, makes it’s own economic decisions, and many of their flights are made in connection with Goodyear dealer commemorative events, etc. And wouldn’t the world be a different, and lesser place if we didn’t see a Goodyear (or MetLife) airship above major sporting events?

  5. Airships are like flying cars – very cool, but just not very practical. Even non-pilots enjoy the grace and visual panache of a blimp as it floats by, seemingly suspended from some long, invisible string. Knowing the physics of how they can float aloft, it still seems impossible that something that large can actually get airborne. It must have been an amazing experience to float across the ocean on one of Germany’s Zeppelins in their heyday. Back then, it was the only way to cross the Atlantic in style besides the time-consuming ocean liners. But, as Mr. Charlton mentioned above, there is that hydrogen thing. Modern materials and technology could make using hydrogen instead of expensive helium relatively safe. But dealing with changing weather in a fragile craft that might make 40 mph under full power, is not something that the average passenger would line up to do.

  6. I wish the article wasn’t limited in words length. It feels like the author had a conclusion that was lopped off due to this limitation. Am I mistaken? If not, it’s not like AvWeb is paying for column-inches in paper and ink. Just wondering.

  7. Actually I disagree. Something like the LMH-1, payload of 44T lbs(actually needs to be more for what follows) is really interesting as a lift for wind turbine blades and tower sections. The current onshore turbines’ component weight is a little more but not that much. When I say lift, either the static installation lift or the transport lift. With blade sizes now getting to 80m plus road transport is getting tough. Large cranes on remote sites have challenges.

  8. A lot has changed since the 1980s, especially awareness of the need to pollute less.
    And that is why the idea of airships keeps coming back, the idea that you might be able to lift a 30 tonne container, or logs or something, from a remote spot and fly straight to destination, using less fuel than a truck….
    So far fantasy, but enough people are convinced enough to put some of their money into it.

    • Agreed. But I wonder if two things are at play here that may confound how sound the idea is:

      Bryn’s wealth and the fact he can make a big bet
      Perhaps hubris in thinking success at Google means success in other areas

      Time will tell