Personal Zepplin

With the rising fashion and awareness in steampunk and gaslamp fantasy, I, being a proactive and greenminded sort, want to invest in a personal aircraft. I was wondering about legal limitations, and if there are limits on how small a zepplin can be without simply dropping like a helium balloon with a rock on it. Any information, including additional concerns I’ve missed, would be helpful, thanks.

Well, to start with, a Zeppelin is, by definition, a rigid airship, that is, not a cylindrical balloon with tapering ends and gondola and motors attached, but a fabric-0covered framework of girders in which are suspended multiple individual gasbags which provide the lift. Though motors and gondola are standard, many had cargo or passenger carrying areas within the framework. While the gasbags must lift not only payload but also that framework, it’s worth it in how much larger you can make the net lifting ability with multiple gasbags, But by the same token this eliminates the Zeppelin from small personal-size arship competition.

I do not have the figures for how much H or He it takes to lift a given payload (I do know that H has 4x the lifting power of He), but I suspect that something with enough lift to carry you, somewhere for you to sit, propulsion unit and control surfaces, would be of a size the order of a large truck or boxcar, if not larger.

Something to haul your ass?
Something with gas?
Your own personal zeppelin?

Ask Robert Plant. You’d likely have to be as rich as him to afford it.

My quick back-of-the-Google calculation says you’d need a 25’ x 10’ x 10’ mass of helium just to lift a 140lb person (i.e., me). That’s not including weight of gas bags, frames, motors, etc., all of which are significantly heavier than a person. So, big.

Regarding the legal limitations, you’re perfectly free (in the U.S. and other countries) to build your own zeppelin. For something small, you’d be better off building a blimp. You could have a keel. The airship would be registered under the Experimental category. You will need a pilot’s certificate, the requirements for which are found under FAR 61.3.

Here’s a one-man pedal-powered blimp made for Comedian Gallagher:

  1. It’s spelled Zeppelin.

  2. Helium is a scarce and dwindling resource. If you’re truly greenminded you might want to take a look at hydrogen: much cheaper and usefully less dense, though with not the best possible reputation for this application.

  3. Another concern for the greenminded: airships are necessarily big and thus have a lot of drag. No problem at low speeds, but you should expect to burn a lot of fuel if you wish to travel at all quickly (say, 40+ mph).

  4. Airships don’t do well in rough weather. Among other implications is the need for a hangar; at the size necessary, this won’t come cheap.

I believe it would have to be licensed/inspected by the FAA. Also, you would need a pilot license, and in addition would have to get permission to be in airspace that may be occupied by other aircraft.

I could be wrong, but I know the hot air balloon people have to go through all of the above.

Sometimes in the 70s (I think) there was some discussion in Sweden about a UFO sighting. Eventually someone came forward (not really, he never mentioned who he was as the whole thing was against all flight regulations) and revealed that he had been out the evening in question testing his home-built hot air blimp.

For stories of personal airships and their limitations, read up on Alberto Santos-Dumont. It’s a wonder a movie of his life hasn’t been made, especially with today’s effects and fascination with steampunk type stuff.

Pfft everyone knows dirigibles are the wave of the future, not your archaic ‘Zeppelin’.

I don’t know the rules regarding operation of free balloons, and I’ve just gotten out of bed so I’m not going to look them up. My total experience with free balloons has been being awakened, as a teen, on weekend mornings as they floated over my house, and helping to recover one that landed in a field a couple of blocks away. However, I don’t think ‘permission’ is the right word to use. A balloon is a registered aircraft, and so must comply with the same rules other aircraft must follow as laid out in FAR 91.126 - FAR 91.135 (operations in various classes of airspace). I’m sure there are exceptions for balloons, just as there are for helicopters; but again, I’m not coherent enough to look them up right now. You do need clearance (‘permission’) to enter Class B airspace, and there are requirements for two-way communication in other classes of airspace.

FWIW, airships have the right of way over other powered aircraft. FAR 91.113 (d):

I blogged on this once: from that is a link to an indoor silver blimp for practice. That would be the smallest.

…And more rigorously to the delightful firm of Minizepp, which will do one a much more robust affair up to 43 ft. Quite apart from the fact that this type of thing is what makes life more interesting, I can’t help germanically immediately considering a martial use. Should say, a medium-sized mini-ship, be painted dark grey and flown on a still night packed with explosive, controlled to drop and sacrifice it’s mechanical self when above the headquarters of the more despicable people; possibly terrorist thugs; or gangland thieves; or vivisectionists; or… Whaling Groups even. Expensive; cheaper than a jet-liner though.

Actually… maybe not.

The real key here is how big and how heavy it is (without the lifting gas in it). If you can build a personal airship, ridgid or otherwise, that weighs less than 254 pounds, carries no more than five gallons of fuel, carries only one person and goes less than 55 knots it would fall under FAR Part 103, the rules on ultralights. If you keep within those limits no inspection required, no license required, and not even flight lessons required. Needless to say, I strongly recommend some sort of training, as uncontrolled falling out of the sky can be extremely painful. The airspace you could fly in would be limited, but you don’t really want to get in the way of a B-747 anyhow, do you?

Link to Straighte Dope column on a related question that has some relevant information

Anything larger than a Part 103 compliant airship is going to require a license. Since you’re looking at a personal aircraft you might want to go with a Sport Pilot license with airship rating, or perhaps a Private license with airship rating. The fact you’d be supplying your own aircraft would make finding an instructor easier. The fact you’d probably be building it yourself would mean you need to license it as an Experimental homebuilt aircraft and yes, and inspection will be required.

Link to application FAA regs and advisories for homebuilt aircraft

There is a considerable community of people out there interested in homebuilt aircraft. You will want to look into the Experimental Aviation Association and find both other personal airship pilots (they do exist - we have one in my general area, he’s stopped by the local airport a few times) and local homebuilder chapters.

Even if you go the ultralight route I’d strongly recommend a Sport or Private Pilot ground school of some sort, either formal classroom or one of the self-study programs out there. It will provide you with the necessary education in airspace regulations, flight regulations, weather, navigation and other “book learning” you need to safely fly your airship. The standard courses won’t pertain 100% to what you’re thinking of, but it’s an easy way to get the stuff that applies to everyone.

I will caution you that this will require a significant outlay of money if you’re thinking of constructing an airship, either an original plan or from a kit (there actually have been a few kit blimps/zeps), or purchasing one already constructed. (If you do purchase a used one please, please have a professional mechanic inspect it prior to flight). It will also require considerable time, as personal airships are unusual and the information not as readily available as for, say, fixed wing or rotorcraft. Anything larger than an ultralight will require you to deal with the FAA in regards to inspection and licensing - that means time and paperwork. Finding an appropriate instructor will not be very easy, and will likely require that either you travel to the instructor or the instructor travels to your location (which would probably mean you have to pay for said instructor’s lodging as well) which is a reason I recommended the EAA - they aren’t perfect, but it’s probably the best place to start looking for an instructor for an unusual aircraft.

It is, however, quite possible to do this if you really want to. So… how motivated are you?

Here’s a small company that built a hot-air prototype of a personal blimp.

The amazing story of Alberto Santos Dumont.

I can’t believe nobody has brought up how evil blimps are. See below.

Could there be a future for a scaled-up version of these?

You could look into Hot Air Airships. They’re not rigid, more of a hot air blimp. The heat is extracted from the engine and the exhaust. Building a rigid structure for a small airship doesn’t make much sense. The rigid members just add weight and aren’t needed for the light isolated load of one person and an engine. Many non-rigid designs have some rigid components though, to make control surfaces stiff, or to optimize the shape of the ship. There are also one-man hot air balloons. Popular Science once got a cover shot of one of these flying inside of a full sized hot air balloon.

You could also tie a bunch of helium balloons to a lawn chair, and carry a leaf blower with you. Make sure someone on the ground has a video camera.

It doesn’t have to be any larger than a powerboat if it filled with the 9th ray.