An airship is a type of aerostat, or lighter-than-air aircraft, that can navigate through the air under its own power. Airships gain their lift from large gas bags filled with a lifting gas that is less dense than the surrounding air. Airships have four primary components:
- The Envelope - This is the structure, typically a heavy cloth, that contains the buoyant gas.
- Lifting Gas - The primary gas used by airships is hydrogen, while very effective it is also extremely flammable, thus adding to the danger associated with being an aeronaut.
- Gondola - This is the crew car of the airship, most airships used by militaries around the world use repurposed sailing ships for the gondola.
- Propulsion & Control - Most airships carry their propulsion systems in the gondola. Early versions used steam power, but current airships have moved to Lightning power. Small airships have central control from a helm, larger versions may have multiple engines and use a telegraph system from the helm to the engines to direct crew.
The first modern airship was built in France in 1852 by Henri Giffard, and was the first powered and steerable airship to fly. The craft featured an elongated hydrogen-filled envelope that tapered to a point at each end. From this was suspended a long beam with a triangular, sail-like rudder at its aft end, and beneath the beam a platform for the pilot and steam engine. On 24 September 1852, Giffard flew the airship from the hippodrome at Place de l'Etoile to Élancourt, covering the 17 mile journey in around 3 hours. While the engine was not sufficiently powerful to allow Giffard to fly against the wind to make a return journey, this flight sufficiently piqued the interest of forward thinking military leaders and some nations began to explore the idea of Airships for use in scouting enemy troop movements.
In 1863 Solomon Andrews flew his first "Aereon" over Perth Amboy, NJ. This Airship had three 80-foot cigar-shaped balloons, with a rudder and gondola. Buoyancy was controlled by jettisoning sand ballast or releasing hydrogen lift gas. Dr. Andrews wrote President Abraham Lincoln later that summer offering the Aereon for use by Federation forces in the ongoing Civil War. After much discussion, he arranged a demonstration early in 1864 before the Smithsonian Institution. The president was suitably impressed and ordered 6 Aereons be built and entered into service.
Andrews formed the Aerial Navigation Company to build Federation military Airships. The gondolas were repurposed small Navy schooners with a single “lemon-shaped” balloon filled with hydrogen gas. Buoyancy was controlled by a system of lines and pulleys that compressed the gas or allowed it to expand Early models were steam powered, but over the next decade improvements were made and currently most airships use Lightning powered propulsion.
In late 1864 Andrews was engaged to a Virginian debutante named Belle Boyd. They were quickly engaged and determined to be married in early 1865. Belle had other plans. Belle Boyd was an agent in the employ of the League of American States and two weeks before the wedding she stole one of the Aereon prototypes and flew it to Charleston where she was celebrated as a hero.
Over the next decade airships were used regularly by both the Federation and League forces. Combat attrition and the expense of building and crewing the vessels means that each nation has on average a dozen functioning airships. While a some vessels are part of their respective military, many airships were built and crewed by wealthy individuals and serve as privateers of the sky.
Post Calamity several airships from both sides deserted and now act as mercenaries and pirates. They are suspected to be operating out of the Great Lakes region, possibly with hideouts among the Nebraska Ises. West of the Mississippi the frequent storms and tornadoes have kept most captains from using their vessels to explore the lands ravaged by the disaster.