Thermal airship

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A thermal airship is an airship that generates its lift via a temperature differential between the gas inside its envelope and the ambient air. (This is in contrast to the more common use of Helium to provide lift.) Currently all thermal airships use hot air, as used in a hot air balloon, as their lifting gas. However, an airship that uses steam would also qualify as a thermal airship.


Thermal airships have the advantage of being less expensive than helium-based airships. They are also routinely deflated after each flight and can be readily packed for storage and/or transport.

Hot air craft produce much less lift per unit volume than Helium or Hydrogen filled craft (about 30% depending on air conditions)

This forces them to have much lighter in construction, with fewer controls and in some cases more difficulty in maneuvering. This leads to:

  • lower airspeeds.
  • difficulty in handling on the ground if the ground wind is above 5 knots.
  • difficulty to steering particularly at low airspeeds.
  • lack of elevator (pitch) control causing them to pitch upward/downward with changes in the throttle (a motion called 'porpoising').

Note that the Skyacht design describe below avoids the last two problems.

In recent years, steering of these ships has improved somewhat. The most successful approaches have been to use higher pressure in the tail fin structures than in the rest of the envelope or to use an internal structure (see below.)


The first public flight of a hot air airship was made by Don Cameron (UK) of Cameron Balloons at the public at the Icicle Meet in January 1973. The aircraft reportedly took 3 years to develop.

Envelope structures

Most thermal airships are non-rigid. Some are pressurized. In some cases, the pressurized air is taken from a duct located behind the propeller. In other cases, the pressurized air comes from a separate fan.

In 2006, a new type of envelope employing a tensile membrane structure was developed by Skyacht Aircraft. This design uses an unpressurized envelope and an internal structure that uses ribs made of aluminium to keep the envelope in shape. When not in use, the structure folds up in a manner similar to an umbrella. The structure also permits the mounting of a steerable engine/propeller on the tail of the aircraft. The tail-mounted propeller provides for vectored thrust steering, allowing tight turns.


Like hot air balloons, thermal airships are first inflated partially with cold (ambient temperature) air. Once the envelopes are filled enough, a propane burner is ignited and the inflation is completed using heated air.

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See also