By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Many nations lay claim to the initial invention
of the airship, including Austria. Austria’s
claim lies with David Schwartz, a Croatian
Jew. Schwartz, a wood merchant by trade, had
taken up airships as his hobby. A small but
enthusiastic community had built up around
the notion of lighter-than-air flight, exchanging
ideas with the all the quixotic fury of the
Conventional wisdom said that a metal-framed
airship would be much too heavy to lift with
gas, but Schwarz's experience with wood convinced
him that it couldn't take the stresses. He
contracted with a Berlin factory owner, Carl
Berg, to take his vision beyond the hobby
and into reality. Berg's factory turned out
over 1,000 parts made of a lightweight aluminum
alloy, and the two built their frame on Berlin's
Tempelhof field, the future site of one of
the world's great airports.
When completed, the vessel looked like an
artillery shell, or perhaps a fat pencil,
with a pointed end and cylindrical body. Schwartz
filled his airship with hydrogen and began
ground tests in October 1896. Full flight
testing would begin in the following January,
but during a stopover in Vienan while on his
way to Berlin, the 45-year-old Schwarz suffered
a massive heart attack and died. His wife,
Melanie, managed to arrange a brief test flight
but the machine crashed. Ferdinand von Zeppelin
paid the widow 15,000 marks for the plans
to the airship, and soon eclipsed Schwarz
as the prime mover of airship development.
Two teenage brothers from Graz, Alexander
and Anatol Renner, began building an airship
in the late summer of 1909. They and their
father, Franz, a wealthy former circus acrobat,
declared their Estaric I ready for
flight in less than two weeks. The airship
was 32 meters long, with a 24-horsepower motor
and a single propeller, and carrying a crew
of the two brothers. Painted bright yellow,
the airship failed in its first launch attempt
but after some experiments with the sand ballast
finally took to the air on 26 September, the
first airship flight in the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. The brothers made eight flights over
the Graz autumn fair, while bands played,
Kaiser Franz Josef observed solemnly, and
beer-soused crowds looked on in amazement.
The Renner brothers and their airship.
The brothers flew their airship to Vienna,
again amazing fairgoers over the Prater, the
large park island in the Danube. Though the
Renner family claimed to have designed the
airship and built it from scratch, they appear
to have purchased it whole from an American
inventor, Thomas Scott Baldwin, and assembled
it in Austria.
After the success of their first venture,
the Renner family built a new airship, about
twice the size of Estaric I. Named
Graz, this ship was 60 meters long
with two 55-horsepower engines and a long,
slender gondola slung under the gasbag as
opposed to the open metal framework under
Estaric. As with the first ship this
does not appear to have been an original design
but a copy of the successful German Parseval
type. She made several flights to Austrian
cities and attracted imperial attention.
Impressed by Graz, the Imperial and
Royal Army ordered a Parseval airship of their
own in late 1909, built under license by Ballonfabrik
Wimpassing in Austria, a subsidiary of the
Vienna machine-tools maker Körting Österreich.
Known as Militärluftschiff I or
M.I, she began her career in November
at from the new airship base at Fischamend,
a few miles down the Danube from Vienna. Among
the passengers on her first flight was Ferdinand
Porsche, Austrian helicopter pioneer and later
the designer of automobiles and the King Tiger
tank. With an 85-horsepower engine, M.I
could carry up to five passengers with
two or three crew. She was employed for training
and some propaganda flights, almost all of
them in the Vienna region, and was decommissioned
in early 1914.
For its second airship, the army licensed
the French Lebaudy-Juillot design and built
M.II in the shed at Fischamend. She
was not considered successful and after some
training flights was decommissioned in the
summer of 1913.
The airship M.I, soon after delivery
to Fischamend airbase.
For M.III, the Austrians went with a local
design by Alexander Cassinone, general director
of Körting Österreich. She made
her first flight in January 1911, and immediately
proved successful. Powered by two 75-horsepower
engines, she was the only Austrian airship
with a radio and carried a crew of seven.
On 20 June 1914, while she hovered over Fischamend
testing new camera equipment, an Army pilot
flying a new French-made Farman biplane tried
to loop the floating gasbag. He veered too
close and ripped the top of the envelope open;
the escaping hydrogen met his engine and exploded.
All seven aboard the airship, plus the two
men in the airplane, were killed.
M.IV, designed by Army Capt. Friedrich
Boemches, was built in the Fischamend hangar
in the winter of 1911-1912 but proved a failure.
She undertook a few test flights in the spring
of 1912 and was discarded. A fifth airship,
named Austria rather than numbered,
was built at the same time by Austrian aviator
Franz Mannsbarth. She was much larger than
the other airships, and could carry up to
30 passengers. However, she was hard to maneuver,
and despite making 56 test flights she was
not accepted for Army service and finally
broken up in 1914.
Airship M.III is walked out of
the Fischamend hangar. Note the hangar’s
small size; it could only hold one small
airship at a time and could not have
housed the large Zeppelin rigid airships.
The explosion of M.III ended the Austrian
airship program — the Luftschiffabteilung
had only a very small crew complement and
its best-trained men had been lost in the
accident. Only one airship was kept operational
at a time, as the Fischamend hangar could
only hold one, with the others kept deflated
and in storage. Before the Army could decide
whether to re-commission one of the two stored
ships or buy a new one, mobilization for war
began and thoughts of new airships were temporarily
Wartime expansion exponentially increased
Austria-Hungary aircraft squadrons, but new
airships were not among the additions. In
1915 the Army sent four officers (including
Mannsbarth, now an Army captain) to train
with the German Army in preparation for acquiring
two Zeppelin airships, but the purchase would
never be completed.
Alternative history? Austrian propaganda
postcard showing a Parseval airship
like M.I attacking Venice. No
such assault ever took place.
The German Naval Airship Division had been
created to scout for the fleet, but the Austrian
navy had little interest in airships until
1917, about the same time that the German
Army transferred all its craft to the Navy.
The Austrian Navy apparently attempted to
acquire some of the German airships, and when
thwarted there ordered four from local sources.
Mannsbarth designed a small scouting airship
for the Navy and began construction in the
Fischamend hangar. When the war ended his
first airship had been completed and parts
for the other three collected — only
one ship could be put together at a time.
Austria’s last airship apparently never
flew nor even received a Navy designation.
It was destroyed at war’s end along
with the three incomplete ships. The Navy
had planned to operate the ship from its base
at Pola in Istria, but no work appears to
have been done on the necessary hangar —
airships are vulnerable to winds on the ground
and have to be protected during servicing.
We gave the Austrian navy three zeppelin-type
airships in Great
War at Sea: Mediterranean,
an undoubted overstatement of the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine’s
intentions or abilities. These represent the
1917 attempted acquisition of German zeppelins,
and appear only in hypothetical scenarios.