Lyrical writers who comment lovingly on the glories of the era of the big rigid airships – Zeppelins, to give the name of the German originator to all of them – frequently call them “Silver Giants” or something similar. Whatever the noun, the adjective “silver” always seems to get in there.
Since the Goodyear blimps that we see today are silver, it is easy to accept the idea that airships, whether Zeppelin-type or non-rigid, were always silver colored. However, let’s disregard blimps for now and concentrate on Zeppelins.
Actually, silver coloring was used on a very few of the total Zeppelin fleet. From 1900 through 1938, the fleet consisted of 20 airships by the competing German Schutte-Lanz firm from 1911-18, 17 by various British firms from 1912-1929, three in the U.S. from 1923-1933, and one in France in 1913. Only seven of these, or 4.3% of the total, were silver.
When they first started, airships and airplanes both were covered with cloth, which was left its natural color. Clear dope was used for fabric tightening. Weather protection didn’t affect the color initially, but tended to darken with time to a color most often described as “burnt umber.”
Paint for the purpose of overall airplane decoration was seldom used before World War I. When color was applied during the war, it was primarily for the purpose of camouflage, even though a few German squadrons became famous for their “Circus” coloring.
There was a good reason for not painting the big airships. All those acres of fabric required a lot of paint. Cost wasn’t the problem as much as the weight that would be added. Lift was marginal enough on the early airships without sacrificing a few hundred pounds to such a non-functional item as paint.
With cloth in as short supply as it was in World War I Germany, the Zeppelin firm often had to cover new airships with cloth from different batches or even from different suppliers. This resulted in a patchy appearance that was often accentuated when still different cloth was applied during field repairs.
By early 1917 the Zeppelins that were raiding England were forced to fly at night. The off-white and other light fabric shades could easily be picked up by searchlights, so for protection, the raiders were painted black. Their tops, however, were unpainted for a very good reason. The ships still had to do some flying by day and the black was very good at absorbing the sun’s heat. This warmth expanded the hydrogen gas, some of which “blew-off” or escaped through safety valves. To minimize this undesirable occurrence, the tops of the Zeppelins were left in the original “airship color.”
Not until 1923 was silver coloring applied to the rigid airship. The first two postwar Zeppelins of 1919-21 were both in natural finish. The U.S.S. Shenandoah, built by the U.S. Navy, was the first to have silver pigment mixed with the outer surface coating. The silver proved to be very advantageous to the airship; it not only protected the fabric from the deteriorating effect of the sun’s rays, but it reflected heat and thereby cut down on gas expansion and blow-off (this was much more critical on a helium-filled ship like the Shenandoah; helium was vastly more expensive than the hydrogen used by other airships at that time and for some time later).
The next Zeppelin, built in 1924 in Germany and delivered to the U.S. Navy as war reparations to become the U.S.S. Los Angeles, was also silver, as were the final Zeppelins, the “Graf Zeppelin,” “Hindenburg” and “Graf Zeppelin II”. The U.S.S. Akron and Macon, built for the U.S. Navy by Goodyear, were also silver, as were the final two British airships, R-100 and R-101.
So there they are – seven “silver” Zeppelins out of 160.
Incidentally, do you realize how old you have to be to have actually SEEN a Zeppelin? The last one to fly over the U.S. was the “Hindenburg” in May 1937. The last of the U.S. Navy ships to fly, the Macon, was lost off the Pacific Coast in February 1935. If you lived in Germany, the old “Graf Zeppelin” (built in 1928) and the “Graf Zeppelin II” (built in 1938) survived to 1940, but were then scrapped on the orders of Hermann Goering.
CLASSIC BLACK: The German Navy L-43 (LZ-92) of early 1917 was the first Zeppelin to use black paint for nighttime operations. Note the sharp separation line for the unpainted top.
TWO-TONE: The L-70 (LZ-112) of 1918 left more of the top unpainted and also left the paint off of the upper vertical fin and rudder.
THE FIRST: The U.S.S. Shenandoah, based on wartime German technology and built by the U.S. Navy in 1923, was the first Zeppelin-type airship to have a silver finish. The heat-reflecting characteristic was effective in reducing solar heating and blow-off of the very expensive helium gas ($120.22 per 1,000 cubic feet then vs. $2 to $3 per thousand for hydrogen).
NOT JUST A DECORATION: The light-colored stripe on the side of the U.S. Navy’s Akron and Macon was not for decoration. The engines were mounted internally on these ships, and could be worked on inflight. Leaving a section of the fabric unpainted along the catwalk let light in. Those black squares running up the sides are condensers to recover water vapor from the engine exhaust. This also saved helium from having to be valved off as weight was reduced through fuel burn.