How to Train Your Dirigible

A signature event of the 2015 International Steampunk Symposium was the dirigible races taking place Saturday night. Since I had never witnessed this sport it was at the top of my list of must-sees, but due to the costume contest running over I missed the first several flights. A helpful neighbour quickly filled me in, however, and from the rest of the contest it wasn’t hard to reconstruct the beginning.

Claude Airship 680

Claude MacDonald’s latest airship “Lexx” for Circle City Aerodrome of Indianapolis (photo: Burch Roots Studio)

Dirigible racing, for those not in the know, is the practice of creating a remote-controlled, helium supported dirigible, and flying it around a course. The best time wins, but awards are also given in the categories of best artistic design, and best engineering.

The thing one quickly notices, watching these dirigibles race, is that not all airships are created equal. From the balloons used to support them, down to the choice of steering mechanism, the differences in engineering and design are delightfully varied and unique.

All the ships seemed to have extreme difficulty navigating the course this year. According to my friendly neighbour, it appeared the ventilation system was somehow messing with navigation. In typical Murphy’s Law fashion, after the contest was concluded most of the ships appeared to work just fine. The only ship to finish the course under it’s own power took over seven minutes. This was also the ship that won–a nano-blimp piloted by Bret Daly, representing the Corsair Iniquitous.

Bret Daly and the Nano Blimp (photo Will Jackson)

Bret Daly and the Nano Blimp (photo Will Jackson)

Nano-blimps are the simplest possible dirigible design. They consist of a ready-to fly engine attached to a single helium filled balloon. It is ironic that this ship managed to win against all the other, much more carefully designed dirigibles, and is a testament to the tenacity of the pilot that his was the only entry to finish under its own power. A name for the blimp was hasty chosen– Bertha 3.0 . Bret released the black mylar balloon to be free after it won, and so we must presume that next year’s ship will be Bertha 4.0.

Coming in second place was the Lexx Dirigible built and piloted by Claude McDonald for the Circle City Aerodrome. He also won best engineering. The judges for the contest were chosen by asking audience members to volunteer. One judge was an artist, one an engineer, and one a lay person without knowledge of either field. The engineering design was awarded to the Lexx Dirigible for its balanced construction, and realistic similarities to real airships. The judge points out that the coach of an airship is usually situation directly under the balloon for a good reason. The good design of this ship was undoubtedly a contributor in its placement, even though it had to be assisted over the finish line by hand.

The Lexx Dirigible is also unique in that it is a carrier ship. Three tiny bi-planes poised on its back are ready to take-off and explore on their own. Except they’re made of cardboard, of course, and have no engines.

At least two of the dirigibles entered in this year’s contest featured a quad copter design. Quad copters have four vertical propellers (much like those on a helicopter) that provide lift, and steerage. While quad copters do not usually require a balloon to lift them, these dirigibles were, presumably, under-engineered in order to meet the design requirements. Among the quad designs was the Hammerhead, a ship built by  Caelyn Nagle to represent the Kraken Alliance and flown by Megan Carriger of the Airship Ashanti.

This ship didn’t win an award for “Most Dangerous Airship” only because such an award does not exist. It behaved with a mind of it’s own, clearly more interested in molesting by-standers than completing the course. Fortunately it was later discovered that the control issues were not a design flaw, but an issue with the controller. I look forward to seeing this ship fly properly next year.  It did, however, win best artistic design, which was certainly well-deserved. The level of detail on board the tiny model ship was nothing short of amazing.

John Campbell and the famous Eleanor Page (photo Southern Illinois Steampunk Society)

John Campbell and the famous Eleanor Page (photo Southern Illinois Steampunk Society)

The Eleanor Page, designed and built by John Campbell, won last year’s race in a record-breaking 12 seconds. This year, due to operator malfunction, she failed to place. But she had one of the most interesting designs among all the ranks; built along the lines of a flying fish with rudder and fins attached directly to the foil balloon.

Bill Lawley, a mercenary flying for Airship Hypatia, brought no less than four different dirigibles. One, a gorgeous winged ship dubbed HMA Omnipotent 2, refused to do anything besides fly in circles. A model sailing ship, HMA Exodia hanging from a gold #1 balloon insisted on flying backwards. The ship to function the best was the HMA Empire, a quad coptor using the same balloon style as the HMA Exodia. Unfortuanately, Bill was unable to get it running in time for the race, but you can see it gliding around in the video below.

A couple of groups were registered for the races but had to withdrawn due to unforeseen circumstances.

Dirigible Racing is a popular event at many steampunk conventions. Developing RC Dirigibles is one of the most high-tech steampunk activities I’ve witnessed, requiring skills in several fields of engineering from aerodynamics to electronics, to robotics. Quad coptors definitely appear to be the preferred design model, as it can provide both lift and steering, but all the designs seen at the 2015 games were functional and unique. It’s interesting to see the different visual designs as well, and I look forward to next year’s races!


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