Long before these inflatable flying machines became synonymous with a tire manufacturer and were relegated to loops overhead football stadiums, they were the future of aviation! Before the Wright brothers had liftoff in Kitty Hawk, a daring and big-dreaming Brazilian named Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1852 became the world's first to achieve true dirigibility—that is, to fly through the air by engine power—over the Zoological Garden west of Paris.
With this first success came lofty visions for a tomorrowland in which wars were fought by airborne armadas and calmer skies were highways of balloon transport, complete with landing platforms, filling stations, and repair shops, though we can safely assume you'd never pull up to find "free air."
We tend to forget, however, that the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 wasn't a small hitch in the rise of the airship age—it was its end. As C. Michael Hiam writes in his newly released Dirigible Dreams, after that flaming failure over New Jersey, "not a single customer was taken up in an airship ever again, and by the start of World War II just two years later, the airship had become entirely extinct."
Guaranteed that nobody imagined the end of the shuttle program would give rise to the dirigible department.
Fifty years ago, as NASA was entering its golden age of discovery, while the military advanced its own aerodynamic fleets, the idea of balloon aviation must have been at its most laughable. Which may be what was so funny about a little humor piece in the September 1962 issue of the now-defunct Pageant magazine. (A copy of said issue was serendipitously rescued by a UPNE colleague from a dusty box full of old glossies at an estate sale.)
The jokey article, by Charles Barsotti—published on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis—claims to be "Your Illustrated Guide to Dirigible Defense, Vol. 1." (Is it a dig at Castro's air force might?) For reasons obvious or not, but shamelessly coincidental to the publication of Hiam's Dirigible Dreams, we thought we'd bring this long-lost bit of bellicose humor into the digital age.
Do you have the chops to be a Civilian Watcher for Unidentified Dirigibles (CWUD)?
|The whistle is an essential part of the uniform.|
|Leggings, too, apparently.|
|You may be just as likely to spot one by looking down. #hindenburghumor|
|Whatever you do, don't speak to the dirigible.|
|Also mistaken for dirigibles: the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade|
If you can lend more historical context to this article, please leave a comment!
Meantime, journey back to the true age of the airship with C. Michael Hiam's Dirigible Dreams.