Look, in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… lighter-than-air flying machine? Honestly, these things are pretty big, not sure how you got them confused with a bird or a plane. That’s right, it’s time to spend an entire episode talking about airships, a topic near and dear to at least one of our hosts. We’ll discuss what qualifies as an airship, how they lift off the ground, and why airship fans are still bitter about the plane.


Generously transcribed by Fussilat and Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Oren: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening Song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is Chris and Wes.

Chris: And just letting you know we can use more audio editing volunteers, no experience necessary. We’ll train you in how to audio edit to make all of us sound better. So if that sounds intriguing to you, you can go to mythcreants.com/volunteer

Oren: Thank you, Chris. Now, I’m often told that I’m full of hot air, which I assume is a compliment because it makes me similar to the earliest airships, which is what we are talking about today. Boom, segue.

Wes: Perfect!

Chris: Yeah 10 out of 10. But of course, now we have to play airship sandwich.

Oren: Yeah, isn’t an airship a sandwich? I mean, maybe a delicious hydrogen sandwich.

Chris: So first, if I have magical flapping wings that I chant to be on a rowboat to make the rowboat fly, is that an airship?

Oren: Now you’re getting into the question of is a boat a ship? [Wes laughs] That’s an airboat, madam.

Chris: So it doesn’t count if it’s a boat. Remind me what exactly the distinction between a boat and a ship is again?

Oren: Colloquially a boat is small. There’s like more complicated ones, but like for intents and purposes, that would definitely be an airship.

Chris: Okay, so is a rowboat with flapping wings flying around the skies an airship?

Oren: Yeah, it’s a type of one. It’s like a weird niche one. But yes, to the extent that a boat is a ship, that would count.

Wes: I just thought ships had to have cabins.

Oren: It’s complicated. But boats and ships are similar enough that if we had an episode about ships, and we mentioned a vessel that was technically a boat, I don’t think that would be considered off topic.

Chris: Okay, how about a ship that’s lifted into the sky by an airplane? There’s an airplane and has a ship dangling from it?

Oren: No. And in fact, you can get burned at the stake for that. [Chris and Wes laugh] Look, airships are a lot of things. The one thing that they are not is airplanes. We’re very sensitive about this.

Chris: Okay, so if I take the wings off an airplane and enchant it to keep flying, that’s very different from an airship.

Oren: Look, what’s important is that it doesn’t generate lift with a wing, because we’re still bitter about how that turned out to be the more practical form of air transit after the 30s. Because we could have had zeppelins, but no, physics got in the way.

Chris: Okay, so then if I have jet engines on a boat…

Oren: I’d probably light it on fire, but it might count. Jet-powered airships are definitely a thing that you could have.

Chris: Yeah, what’s the difference between wings and lesser magical flapping wings? That doesn’t make a rowboat into an aeroplane. But if it had wings that generated lift then it can’t be an airship anymore.

Oren: No, it has to be getting its lift from something other than air moving over the wings. That’s the basic default of an airship.

Wes: Yeah, because I think the movement is important because airships can hover and airplanes can’t.

Oren: In real life, the distinction is that airships are a kind of lighter-than-air craft, whereas airplanes are heavier than air, and they generate lift some other way either through a wing, in the case of a plane, or through rotors, in the case of a helicopter, but regardless, they are heavier than the air around them, whereas an airship is lighter than the air around it, which is how it goes up in the air.

Chris: Okay, so by that model, I could take the wings off an airplane and enchant it to keep flying. And that would be an airship.

Oren: Sure. I have no problem with this. I mean, I don’t think anyone would ever do that. But yeah, if you want to go for it.

Wes: That airplane is not quite perfect. Let me rip the wings. Change it.

Oren: We’re also just very lucky that a guy who was famous for working with early airships had the name “Zeppelin,” because that’s a very cool name to become synonymous with a type of craft as opposed to, like, “Count von Sillydorf” or something. We would be very sad if that had been the famous airship inventor.

Wes: So what is it about airships? Why do we like them?

Oren: Because they’re really cooool because they’re ships in the airrr. There’re a few reasons, right? You have to ask yourself, “Okay, how much do you care about realism?” Because the defining feature of a realistic airship is that it has very limited capabilities. The reason why airplanes won out is because gas can’t really lift that much, which is why airships are super light and fragile. You can do like The Guns Above does, which is a novel that focuses on really realistic airships, at least as realistic as they can be. The ships are all designed to be as light as possible. Their decks are literally made of wicker. And they make a point of how a musket ball will go straight through the ship, in one end and out the other, because they just have to be. Every ounce matters. And they talk about how important the ballast is and how if someone walks to the other end of the ship, they have to bring some ballast over to the front so that it doesn’t tip over. And you get a lot of novelty that way.

Chris: It also adds a lot of conflict. Because now that we know how sensitive the ship is, there’s more challenge to doing things. The downside, of course, is that the author is just really attached to being accurate and saying things like the arrow screws instead of propellers. She calls them arrow screws, and most people would not know that basically means a propeller. And so she’s sacrificing clarity to get accuracy, which, if only airship enthusiasts read your book, okay, but usually, you’re gonna want to make it a little bit more accessible. I did like the explanation of ballasts, though, I thought she did a really good job with that. And that was interesting.

Oren: I think she eventually explains what goldbeater is. For reference, it is an insulating material that you use to make the gas bags in an airship, because in the 20s and 30s, it was the best way to keep the gas from leaking out. And it’s literally made from the insides of ox intestines. That was one of the limiting factors on making airships was that there were only so many ox intestines to go around.

Wes: Oh no…!

Oren: Nowadays, we have synthetic materials that can do the job just as well. But you could definitely write The Guns Above without being as confusing as it is. Like, there’s also a part that, if you know what she’s talking about, is really neat. She’s talking about the tip speed of the propellers, because if the propellers tips start to go faster than the speed of sound, that creates some really wonky drag on the propeller, and it can actually destroy the propeller if it’s not made for it. And that’s what she’s talking about. You would never know that if you weren’t already versed in that subject, but you could write that for a more general audience. It’s just a matter of how accessible you’re willing to make your story. 

And I do love that book, just because it emphasizes how fragile airships are, which is the thing that most people don’t get. For most people, the thing that made airships not really work was that they could catch on fire. And that didn’t help. But the main problem was that they were actually extremely fragile. Most of the worst airship accidents don’t involve fire; they involve bad weather and the ship just coming apart. Because they’re so light, they aren’t really strong enough to stand up to a significant storm. And I loved the book for that reason. But there are other ways to do airships that people really like. And this is what I went with in my short story that we have on the site, which is basically naval combat in the air because I wanted to have ships with cannons and armor belts and torpedoes and stuff like that. Real airships could never have those things because they’d be way too heavy. So I just created a magic lifting gas, which has super lift powers. Don’t ask where it comes from, I don’t know.

Chris: Well, your setting was also not Earth, which helped. It was a setting that had floating islands because, of course, if you have airships, floating islands are a natural complement to that. Everybody likes floating islands, and notably the setting doesn’t have a ground, just dense gas. So I feel like in the context of a setting like that, it feels perfectly natural that they have some gas that is like superduper light somehow.

Oren: I actually designed the setting that way on the off chance that I might write more stories in that world or in a similar way. I’ve seen a lot of airship stories, and spaceship stories too–actually, any story in which you have a flying ship–have this problem that in real life, ships are the most efficient way of moving stuff around. But they don’t go everywhere because there needs to be water. So you can’t drive your battleship up onto land. But if you have battleship-type airships, you can absolutely do that, because they can fly over. So the problem is that it’s like, “Well, we could just go and attack the bandits on foot for an exciting fight scene. Or we could just fly our airship over and shoot them with our air cannons because we can bring the airship right to them.” 

Star Wars has that problem too, right? Think how many problems in the Mandalorian that could have been solved by Mando just bringing his ship over. That’s just a dynamic you have to be aware of. And that was why I made a setting that is all floating islands is that airships are it. They are the only kind of significant transit. I had this problem back in my first major steampunk RPG where I had lots of airships and I also described trains. And one of the players was like, “Hey, why are there trains? Like what do we need trains for if we have all these airships?” And I was like, “Huh, I don’t know.”

Chris: What was that airship board game?

Oren: Oh, yeah, yeah, Kings of Air and Steam. I love that game.

Chris: Right, where you have to transport goods to market and you have an airship, but then an airship has to be delivered to a train depot, for some reason…

Oren: You can’t take the airship to the city because of zoning laws. They don’t want airships flying over their cities. It disrupts the view as an eyesore and you can’t have factories right next to the cities, either, because then they cause pollution. They want the factories far away from the cities and you can’t take the trains right up to the factories, because the people who invested in airships influenced the government to pass some bullshit safety rule about how it’s dangerous to bring a train close to a factory to artificially create a market for airships.

Chris: It does feel like this is a setting created by a warfare between an airship trade association and a train trade association that I’ve convinced local governments to only allow their mode of transport in some places.

Oren: Also, in that game, the prices for goods only ever go up. So I’m pretty sure that right after the game ends, there’s a huge crash. Because, you know, in real life, if you looked at stocks and the stock prices were only going up for a year, you’d be like, “Something’s probably wrong here.”

Chris: Also, by the percentage, they’re going up.

Oren: Yeah, they double, like, every turn.

Chris: Wow, that’s some scary inflation right there. Too real.

Oren: Like, what are they, tulips? [Laughs]

Wes: Mentioning trains, I think, is a good nod. Because airships are so iconic that I think their appearance locks in what tech aesthetic the setting might have, which is very steampunky. But also, as you point out, how are they propelling their airships? You wouldn’t do it with a steam-powered engine.

Oren: Well, if you’re asking how you’re propelling an airship, it’s probably a diesel or gas engine, but there have been steam-powered airships. In fact, the airship that is often considered to be the first airship, not just a balloon, had an engine. It could be steered. It was made by a guy named Henry Grifford, and it had a steam engine. Most airships don’t, because steam engines are heavy, and airships have to be extremely light. But if you’re in a steampunk setting, you can probably still have gas engines, and it’ll be fine. Or you can handwave it and be like, yeah, it’s got a steam engine, don’t ask how much the water weighs. Don’t ask!

Chris: I mean, if we’re talking about steampunk, there are usually lots of retro inventions that are totally unrealistic. So as far as I’m concerned, you could have something that operates on steam that flaps and has wings based on all those sorts of complex clockwork and steam things that steampunk settings usually have. In a lot of cases, it wouldn’t be any more unrealistic than those.

Wes: It’s just funny how airships really stand out as more of an aesthetic worldbuilding element that benefits from handwavium, way more than a lot of things.

Oren: A lot of settings that use airships clearly are not thinking about all of this. But if you want both airships and trains in your setting, and you want your setting to make more sense at a fundamental level, you probably want to go with airships on the more realistic end of the scale. They could still be more capable than actual airships, and there’ll still be room for trains, just like we have airplanes in the real world and we still use trains, because in a lot of circumstances, trains are still much more efficient. It’s just that once you get into the idea of airships, literally being ships that can fly, at that point where you really have to ask, “Why trains?”

Chris: I do think that yes, you can take an airship and it’s faster. But also, “it’s more expensive” is a fine reason to just keep your trains separate. You just have to be clear what the economic niche is that each one fills so that people have a reason to use one in some situations and the other in different situations.

Oren: And, I mean, you can also have stuff like flying aircraft carriers, which is a common trope in stories that use airships. And realistically, it kind of doesn’t make sense to make your airships capable enough to really serve as aircraft carriers. The US Navy tried this in the 30s, and both of those ships were destroyed by weather, because they were just super fragile. But if you make the airship strong enough that it doesn’t have to do that, this does raise the question of why are we using wings for the planes and not more of this lifting gas if the lifting gas we have is that powerful? Why don’t we put that in the fighter planes? And you know, the answer is, “We don’t want to because we want to have the image of a biplane taking off from the deck of an airship.”

Chris: Wouldn’t that mess with the aerodynamics?

Oren: Probably not. You can put gas in almost any shape. Again, it’s hard to say because in real life, the wings provide so much more lifting power that there aren’t really a lot of studies on whether you could make a fighter plane full of hydrogen.

Chris: Personally, I liked the less realistic airships where we can just have the cool concept of something flying that doesn’t normally fly without making it super complicated. I liked the airship pirates in the Stardust movie, which is funny because they’re not actually pirates. They act like pirates, and you’re supposed to think of them as pirates, but they don’t actually steal anything. They go into the sky and harvest lightning, which is super cool on its own.

Wes: But you’re right. They’re basically farmers.

Chris: They’re basically lightning harvesters and they do fly a ship to go harvest lightning, but they don’t, as far as we know, actually attack other ships and steal anything. But they’re definitely supposed to be pirates.

Oren: Are they harvesting the lightning illegally? Is it lightning poaching?

Wes:I mean, Zeus lays claim to all lightning.

Oren: Maybe it’s the king’s sky. Maybe the king has said, “This is my lightning preserve. Only I am allowed to hunt the lightning in this part of the sky.” I don’t know.

Chris: But the protagonist doesn’t have to fly the ship. So there’s no need to explain how it works and we can just have this cool-looking lightning harvesting ship and that’s all we need to know.

Oren: A lot of airship stories don’t even use the whole concept of lifting gas. Personally, I like lifting gas because I think it creates cool drama, where you can have a hole poked in your ship and something inside of it can leak out that will make your ship not fly anymore. I think that that provides useful conflict and an easy way to raise the stakes. But a lot of stories do something else, like in The Cinder Spires book, which is basically just all airship porn all the time. There’s technically a plot in there too. But really it’s just there for the airships. Those ones don’t have any kind of lifting gas, I think they fly using some kind of magic magnet crystals. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to do it. I just like being able to have my characters yell about how the third and fourth lifting cells have been breached.

Chris: Oh, there’s also the Raksura books by Martha Wells. They have airships in them and several different kinds. One of the things that I like is there are floating islands in that city in that setting. And so some of the airships just use a chunk of floating island and encase it in his ship. And that’s what makes it fly.

Oren: I thought that was very clever. Once they introduced floating islands. I was like, “Yeah, you could probably harvest that and use whatever it is that makes them float as a lifting device.” And then they just did it. And I thought that was very cool.

Chris: They had another airship that used a different mechanism. I think that was just alive, made out of plants and stuff, or was that the same one.

Oren: That wasn’t the same one because I read far enough to get to the floating island airships. I think you read past that.

Chris: Martha Wells eventually does introduce a lifting gas ship too. So there’s several different kinds of airships, which is neat because then the characters discuss competing airship technologies in the context of the setting, which is something you don’t normally see.

Oren: Right, you can have zeppelins versus flying tall ships. That’d be great.

Chris: I will say that my eyes did glaze over a little bit when she got all technical about this. Like, it’s fine to know that there’s a chunk of floating island in the center of this airship, but I didn’t necessarily need to know more about it.

Oren: No, tell me the specifics. I need to know its exact thrust-to-weight ratio. Have you guys heard of the mystery airships?

Wes: What? No. They’re mysterious.

Chris: These are the predecessors to the UFO, right?

Oren: Yeah, they’re the first American UFO phenomenon, where in the 1890s, primarily ‘96 and ‘97, people just started reporting seeing airships because airships had been in the paper. And what do you know, the airships everyone was seeing looked like the concept illustrations from the newspapers and not the actual ships that were being built. Real wacky how UFOs and those sorts of things always look like the popular image of the thing instead of what the thing would actually look like.

Chris: Oh, really? Tell us what your photos actually look like.

Oren: Yeah. I mean, I would love to. So there’s some real wacky mystery airship stories. Some of them are supposed to have had the lost tribes of Israel, who lived at the North Pole, and they were taught English by some random English explorer guy who disappeared. There was a lot of detail put into that story, like when they had this accent that was from, like, the 1600s because they were taught English by a guy from that time. It was like, “Okay, sure. I appreciate the world building you put into that.”

Chris: I love the unidentified flying airships.

Oren: The reason I thought about this earlier was that a lot of them were described as having flapping wings.

Chris: Oh, really? My style, then? Yeah, that’s what I want to see an airship.

Oren: Yeah, that has never been a thing in real life. Because flapping wings are a really inefficient way to generate thrust. But there was concept art of airships at the time that showed them using that. And so that was what people imagined they saw.

Chris: Right? Like somebody just heard that there were airplanes that had wings and they’re like, “Okay, wings. Let’s draw the flapping wings. How else would it have wings?”

Oren: Yeah, because birds fly by moving their wings, right? You don’t see any birds with propellers on them? Gosh, stop trying to improve on nature, guys.

Wes: So whenever airships go into battle, and they have inflatable bits, Oren, do you start losing it? We talked about Carnival Row a long time ago, but I do remember that happening when the zeppelins come in against the fairies.

Chris: Very specifically, the fairies go under them where they can be shot down.

Wes: Where the guns are.

Oren: Okay, so here’s the thing about airships in combat beyond the fact that in that setting, the fairies should have absolutely destroyed them because the fairies are much better fliers than these very large and clumsy airships. Historically, airships are simultaneously extremely fragile, but also weirdly tough. A problem that the British had in World War I when they were trying to shoot down these German zeppelin bombers was that you could fire machine guns at them, but unless you were really accurate and managed to hit a person, the bullets would just kind of go through. And yeah, the ship would start to leak, but then they could just drop ballast and probably make it back anyway. It could also patch the holes. That’s one of the advantages of “rigid airships,” which just means it has an internal structure to it instead of just being a big balloon. So they could just patch the holes that your machine gun made, then they would leave. But of course, they were also filled with hydrogen. So once they figured out how to make a bullet that could catch on fire, that was basically the end. 

So I don’t know what those zeppelins in Carnival Row were filled with. I’m guessing helium, just to try to be a little bit more charitable to them. Although, even in real life, they discovered that zeppelins were way too fragile for close air support, because if the zeppelin got low enough that round artillery could shoot at it, it was basically dead. So its main defense was to fly higher than that, which meant it wasn’t really useful for dropping bombs on enemy soldiers because they moved around too much. So it was like, “We’ll just use them to bomb cities. That’ll be great, strong work, everyone”. That can be a dynamic you can have. 

That’s actually one of the things that makes The Guns Above so impressive. It manages to have airships that clearly fill a niche because it’s all about warfare. It all takes place around the late 1700s, early 1800s. Everyone’s standing in line and shooting each other with musket-type warfare, and yet it manages to have a niche for its airships without feeling like the airships will just make everything else unimportant, which is quite an accomplishment. To be honest, it’s hard to have the airships feel both useful, but also not just dominating.

Chris: Yeah. And it’s kind of part of a bigger strategy that also has to include ground support.

Oren: It’s sort of similar to what Naomi Novik was doing with dragons in the Temeraire books.

Chris: Ah, so are dragons airships? They don’t use wings for lift.

Oren: I don’t know. Is it a whale on an ocean ship?

Wes: Well, we definitely know that Appa is an airship.

Oren: Yeah, for sure. Sky bison are definitely a species of airship.

Wes: Proof that nature can get it right.

Oren: Also, most airship stories focus on military ships. But I actually kind of liked the novel Airborne because it focused on airships as a parallel for cruise liners. It had a lot of other problems. Its plot wasn’t very good, and its romance was bad. But the concept was kind of neat. The concept was about this kid who was serving on an airship cruise liner, which is transporting passengers from one place to another. And that was just kind of neat. Now, of course, it showed the problem of what the story is even about at that point. We eventually get some pirates to come along and hijack the ship and that creates some conflict, but it kind of struggled to create tension in a story about doing your job on a regular airship. It basically just depended on the novelty to carry it through until the pirates could show up.

Chris: So, my question is, did it just feel like being on a regular cruise liner but in the air? Or were there some interesting distinctions between a pleasure cruise in the air and the water?

Oren: There were interesting things if you care about how airships work, which I do, so I enjoyed that bit of it. For people who aren’t fascinated with airships, the main advantage of them is honestly that you can create more interesting maneuvers because you add the Z dimension to combat, but you don’t have to go far enough to be in space. It allows you to have ships maneuvering around in three dimensions with lower technology than sci-fi would, which can be useful because sometimes you don’t want all of the accouterments that are expected in high tech sci-fi stories. And nowadays, it’s harder to just not have those. Back in the day, you could write a sci-fi story where everyone’s flying around in hyperspace, but they haven’t figured out how to disinfect wounds. But nowadays, it would seem pretty weird if you did that. Whereas you could have something similar to that with an airship; it’s more believable that you could have a steampunk airship in a setting that hasn’t figured out germ theory yet. Anyway, that’s my main pitch for airships: you can have flying ships and germs, I think that’s where I’m going with this.

Chris: Certainly people will notice differences in technology less if it’s farther away from our current level technology. And they don’t have to be super complicated. Depending on the realism of your setting. You can definitely have more fantasy style airships that are just a rowboat with wings.

Oren: All right, well, with that thought, we’re gonna go ahead and end this podcast.

Chris: If you’d keep listening to our podcast for $1, please become a patron. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.

Oren: You just tie $1 to a little balloon and let it go into the wind. We’ll get it. Now, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[Closing Theme]

Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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