A Niche in Time: Human Flight Through the Ages

Montgolfier brothers balloon

UPDATE: The series is now complete with publication of parts 4 and 5. Links to all the stories are below.

During an extended stay in Paris some years ago, I ventured out beyond the Le Boulevard Périphérique to the Le Musée de l’air et de l’espace at Le Bouget. Having made many a pilgrimage to the American museum with a similar name on the National Mall in Washington, DC, I was interested to see how the French interpreted the history of human flight. It was an eye-opening experience.

Having often gazed up at the Wright Flyer suspended over my head in the Milestones of Flight Gallery, I was accustomed to thinking of human flight as a strictly 20th century development. But, the French museum dated it back 120 years earlier to a pair of equally ambitious brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfiers, who launched piloted balloons. A good part of the museum was devoted to this much earlier phase of flight.

I was reminded of the visit some years later watching HBO’s adaptation of David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” There’s a great scene of the acerbic, candid-to-a-fault founding father watching a Montgolfier balloon launch with his urbane and delightful wife, Abigail, and the equally urbane and delightful Thomas Jefferson.

It’s a terrific scene in a great mini-series. Watching it you get a sense of the wonder that Parisians felt at the time watching something that would have seemed impossible to them not long before. There’s something universal about flying that excites people no matter what century they live in or what technology is used. The same sense of wonder and excitement connects the Parisians of 1783 to early 20th century Americans who saw an airplane for the first time and those who watched Alan Shepard’s launch from Cape Canaveral in 1961.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.

The first post takes us not to 18th century France but to a lake in Southern Germany at the turn of the last century where an aristocrat gave the Montgolfier brothers’ invention a major upgrade.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

A Niche in Time: Behemoths of the Sky

Zeppelin LZ-1 flying over Lake Constance.

Part 1 of 5

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Six months into a new century in an age already known for astounding technological progress, a strange cigar-shaped vehicle slowly rose from a shed on Lake Constance in southern Germany and began to move forward.

Stretching 128 meters (420 feet) from bow to stern, the LZ-1 (Luftschiff Zeppelin, or “Airship Zeppelin”) consisted of a cylindrical aluminum frame covered in fabric with two gondolas suspended below it. Lift was provided by 17 gas bags made of rubberized cotton that contained 11,298 cubic meters (399,000 cubic feet) of flammable hydrogen. The LZ-1 was propelled forward by a pair of 11 kW (14 hp) Daimler engines.

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