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Austrian Gasbags
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2007

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 hobbyist.

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.


The Renner brothers and their airship.

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 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.


The airship M.I, soon after delivery to Fischamend airbase.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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 forgotten.


Alternative history? Austrian propaganda postcard showing a Parseval airship like M.I attacking Venice. No such assault ever took place.

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.

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.

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