The Green Way to Fly
I recently finished re-reading – overnight, almost in one sitting, and mostly on my phone – John McPhee’s wonderful book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. I first read it around 40 years ago, soon after its publication in 1973. Like much of McPhee’s work, it has stayed with me not as a book but as an experience, an evergreen literary memory. The second reading was just about as good as the first.
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed is the story of a group of men devoted to airships – blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins. They believed first, that the airships should never have been marginalized and abandoned, and second, that a new form they called “aeron” – which blended lighter-than-air vehicles with modern aerodynamics – would have even more incredible carrying capacity and flexibility. Such an Aeron would carry vast amounts of freight – or people – at low altitudes and modest speeds without any need for the whole infrastructure of roads, bridges and similar structures which our current transportation system requires. It would comfortably traverse forest and tundra, rock and water, crossing oceans, cities and Arctic terrain equally smoothly and cheaply.
These enthusiasts were – and are — right. In fact, there was actually no overwhelming need for a new invention; the airships that were in service a century ago did all those things and more – and what really drew me back to the book was McPhee’s account of that background. For instance, I wanted to re-read a passage about the last great voyage of a US naval airship, when the Navy was trying to find an excuse to end their use. The chosen vehicle, a blimp called Snowbird, took off from the Naval Air Station at South Weymouth, Massachusetts, on March 4, 1957. It flew through gales, snow, freezing rain, heavy fog, desert sun and tropical storms. It burned about 7 gallons of fuel per hour, roughly the same as a smallish fishing boat. It visited four continents, crossing to Europe, then flying south to Africa, westward to the Lesser Antilles and north to Florida. It was bound for Massachusetts when the Navy ordered it down in Florida. With 15 men aboard, it had flown for 11 days, covering 9,448 miles, a record that stood for many years as the longest unrefuelled flight, both in time and distance, ever made in the earth’s atmosphere. Try that in a jet.
McPhee also provides an account of a transatlantic voyage in a huge Zeppelin. The voyage is downright magical. The trip took two and a half days. The airship was as long as an ocean liner. Cruising at 75 MPH, it was almost silent, and the ride was so stable that a milk bottle inverted on a table in Germany had not fallen over when the ship docked in New York. The accommodations were spacious – a writing room, a smoking room, a grand piano, fine dining and pleasant wines. Passengers could lower the windows and wave to people on the ground. The ship flew so low that it startled cows in Prince Edward Island and cyclists on the Isle of Man.
The Zeppelins provided regularly-scheduled passenger service across the Atlantic for thirty years without a single accident. The Graf Zeppelin, built in 1928, flew 1,053,391 miles, including one complete circuit of the earth. In nine years, it spent 17,000 hours aloft, and carried 13,000 passengers. The only fatalities in the entire history of airships occurred when the Hindenburg burned completely in 34 seconds in 1936, an event reported live on radio. Even then, of the 97 people aboard, 61 survived – but the fire, and the horrified radio report, put an end to the airships.
The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen, which is highly flammable. It was designed to be filled with helium, which is not flammable at all. But the only source of helium at the time was the United States, which was not willing to sell it to the Nazis – with good reason, since the zeppelins had been fearsome weapons in World War I, hanging in the clouds above England and dropping bombs with stunning accuracy.
So the Hindenburg burned, and the airships vanished – but I would like to see them return. In part, this is personal. My wife and I live in Nova Scotia, and we like to winter in Vancouver. Right now the only really practical way to make a trip like that is in a jet plane. But jets are environmentally offensive. In addition, Marjorie has “lazy” eustachian tubes, which don’t easily adapt to changes in air pressure. That makes airline travel an agonizing experience, which more than once has resulted in burst eardrums.
So how do we get to Vancouver? Canada has virtually sabotaged passenger rail, especially for people with dogs, and the bus is even worse. We’ve driven across the country both ways in a motor home; we wouldn’t have missed the experience, but we don’t want to spend a month or more every year doing that. But the distance is roughly the same as from New York to Frankfurt. If we could cruise across in an airship in two and a half days, wouldn’t that be delightful?
That’s what took me back to McPhee, whose report of all this is luminous – still vivid in my memory after more than 40 years, remember. Among the pleasures of the book, as with any McPhee text, is the actual texture of his prose. McPhee’s characteristic narrative stance couples sympathetic amusement with an almost scientific precision. A test pilot wears “a pair of defeated, broken-down loafers with flapping soles.” One of the Aeron’s builders, Everett Linkenhoker, constantly rolls a toothpick in his mouth; when addressed, he “spoke around his toothpick.” When a test pilot endangers the whole venture by taking an Aeron on an unauthorized hop up off the tarmac, the leader of the group “aged ten years, and Linkenhoker bit his toothpick in half.”
That’s pure McPhee. So is his affection for occasional bursts of arcane vocabulary. I don’t often have to look up a word when I’m reading, but in this book McPhee drove me to the dictionary four times to acquire new words: gallimaufric, lanceolate, lithic and phugoid. No, I won’t tell you. You can look them up for yourself.
By the time the book concludes, the Aeron is flying well – and then, within the confines of the book, nothing happens. No corporation shows any interest, and the group slowly disperses. And that apparently ends the Aeron story.
But it doesn’t end the idea. As one of the Aeron team remarks, airships were “the most economical means of air travel ever conceived.” They still are, and they are also the most eco-friendly. As the age of fossil fuels and carefree emissions inevitably concludes, they may provide the only form of flight the ecosphere can afford. Like the electric car, the airship may have been the right idea at the wrong time.
And perhaps the right time is now, a century after the zeppelins. Today, after all, we can paint photovoltaic generating cells on the surfaces of buildings, while the power and lightness of batteries is exponentially increasing. Why should we not have a dirigible with a skin of photovoltaics and a bank of highly-efficient batteries? There’s a little disruptive company in Ontario – called Solar Ship — working to develop just such a vessel. It would constitute almost a zero-impact mode of travel. Its prototypes are already flying in Burundi.
I hope I live long enough to usher Marjorie aboard a zero-impact airship bound for Vancouver or Paris. Guilt-free, painless flying. And wouldn’t it be fun?
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