Consider this a first draft of a revised history, covering – in greater detail – some conventional airships, as well as the entire first generation of armoured airships, and the beginning of the second generation. Unlike the first time round, I have lots of pictures to go along with my descriptions. This is going to be a bit long, so I suggest grabbing your favourite beverage and making yourself comfortable. There are hyperlinks to Hive posts scattered throughout this article. Most of those Hive posts are bilingual, because I can create bilingual posts on Hive with a nice side-by-side format using the following seven command lines:
Which is something I can’t do on WordPress. I would have to carefully format such an article in Microsoft Word, which gets wonky when going from one page to the next, then copy the whole thing, and then hope that the formatting doesn’t get messed up. And with that gripe out of the way, it’s time for more steampunk nonsense!
The conventional nomenclature for all Rossberan aircraft is based around the now antiquated terms “aerostat” and “aerodyne.” An aerostat is any aircraft whose altitude is controlled strictly by its own weight, brought aloft by the low density of a lifting gas. An aerodyne is any aircraft whose altitude is controlled strictly by mechanical means, and usually relies on propellers to provide lift either directly (as in the case of a helicopter) or indirectly (as in the case of an aeroplane). A hybridyne is an aircraft that combines the function of an aerostat and an aerodyne. Of the three airships pictured above, only the dirigible in the middle is an actual aerostat. A flying caravel, which combines the mechanisms of a dirigible and a tiltrotor aircraft, is a hybridyne. Most hybridynes are based on the dirigible, an aerostat with a rigid frame, but there are a few that are based on a partially rigid or non-rigid balloon. For this reason, most conventional airships resemble dirigibles at first glance, though the presence of lift rotors will identify it as a hybridyne, and the configuration of the rotors will identify whether it is a caravel or a carrack. As a reminder, a caravel is a hybridyne with tilting rotors that provide both lift and forward or rearward movement, and tilting one bank of rotors forward while tilting the other bank rearward will cause the airship to turn in place, like a surface ship with side paddle wheels or a land vehicle with caterpillar tracks. A carrack has all of its engines fixed in place, with some dedicated to lift, and others dedicated to thrust. Turning the ship is achieved with conventional control surfaces, such as rudders.
Many Rossberan airship builders were hopelessly attached to one particular design, and there was a great rivalry between those who built different types of airships. Each had it own purpose, and its own unique set of advantages. For example, the caravel was the most manoeuvrable and had the highest rate of climb, but was extremely slow in level flight. The carrack could carry the most weight, and the dirigible was the quietest. This meant that, at least in the context of air travel, the caravel was the best for short-distance cargo transport, the carrack was the best for long-distance cargo transport, and the dirigible was the best for passenger transport. Outside of the context of air travel, however, there was no competition, as railroads were the most popular for all three, except in areas where it was impossible to build them, such as certain mountainous regions, or in mainland Sondor, where most of the terrain is far too soft to support any significant weight, and where travel by boat eclipses everything else by a very wide margin. Nevertheless, for decades there was a competition among airship builders to demonstrate supremacy of their design. Six decades before the Great Rossberan War began, it appeared that the carrack would reign supreme, when the Iron Rose was built.
At 240 metres long, the Iron Rose was the largest airship ever built at the time, and continued to hold that distinction for nearly seven decades, though far heavier ships were built much sooner. As you can see, the Iron Rose has eight pairs of coaxial lift rotors and three pairs of drive propellers. Unlike most airships of its time, the Iron Rose was built almost entirely out of metal. However, because of the limitations of the alloys available at the time, it simply wasn’t possible to make any construction of that size lightweight enough to be lifted by hydrogen alone. Sixteen eight-metre rotors, however, could lift the massive frame and the 116-metre gondola with all its contents high into the air. While the Iron Rose was certainly an impressive feat of engineering, that did not stop critics of the carrack from claiming that the design wasn’t economical. First of all, the cost of building a dirigible frame increased exponentially with size, so most airship builders found it cost-effective to add more lift rotors, rather than increasing the size of the balloon. Dirigibles and other aerostats remained the least popular type of airship outside of Taressim, ironically because the Taressimians could make dirigibles cheaply.
The most common airship in the Taressimian fleet, by far, was a 100-metre long dirigible gunship called the Flying Fish, for reasons that ought to be obvious. Filled with hydrogen and powered by a single steam engine driving two contra-rotating propellers, this airship was very cheap to build. It was also an effective weapon of psychological warfare during most of the Martial State’s expansion, since most of the smaller nations that were gobbled up in the process had little aeronautical capability, so few soldiers would have ever even seen a flying machine of this size, much less known that shooting one down would be relatively easy. As time passed, the Taressimian Air Force developed larger dirigibles and even hybridynes, carrying bigger guns and even bombs. The Air Force became such an important part of Taressimian expansion that, for a time, it seemed that people would immediately surrender because of the sheer number of huge balloons blotting out the sun. At least, that was the case until Taressim went up against two other major Rossberan powers.
Taressimian forces advanced deep enough into Sondorian territory that they were able to capture the city of Turro, but not before the Sondorian River Fleet arrived and began bombarding the besieging army. Taressimian aircraft descended and began attacking the river ships, but were quickly repulsed, as the Sondorian sailors were undaunted, and their guns were more than enough to deal with anything the Taressimians could throw at them. Nevertheless, the River Fleet’s arrival was too little, too late, and the Sondorians were unable to keep the Taressimians from overtaking the city. Taressimian expansion westward was halted in its tracks, so the Martial State turned its attention to the east. Karadenian forces defending Xiamazdu (also spelled Shiamazdu) peformed quite poorly in combat, but it was a single nasty surprise on the Karadenian side that routed the Taressimian invaders. The flying galleon, armed with guns loaded with incendiary weapons, set the sky on fire when it attacked the Taressimian airships, bringing down thirty of them in just under an hour. Unaccustomed to such a rapid loss of fighting strength, the Taressimian forces retreated, despite the fact that they were actually winning by a significant margin; not only were Taressimian fighter aeroplanes far superior to Karadenian fighters, they could have brought down the galleon as well, clearing the path for a decisive Taressimian victory. Had that been the case, the question would have been if the Taressimian forces could hold Xiamazdu and fortify it against a Karadenian counterattack.
The appearance of the Karadenian flying galleon and the role it played in repulsing the Taressimian invasion kicked off a new race in airship development, immediately shifting the focus from civilian to military use. At the time, there was a novel type of airship called a galley, which was a pure aerodyne, not a hybridyne as caravels and carracks were. Galleys made use of newer technology, usually being built of aluminium and driven by internal combustion engines, to perform the same functions as caravels and carracks, but without a balloon taking up the majority of aircraft’s volume. Incidentally, they are still called airships, as are all large or vaguely boat-shaped flying machines in this world, whether they have a balloon or not. However, this is only in English. In Russian, they are called by a different name, as I explain here (get rekt, English speakers). However, the bell-shaped diamagnetic drive called a glossarion levitator quickly made all other lift systems obsolete, so interest in the galley disappeared almost overnight. Conventional airships retained popularity only where high cost and/or noise were unwanted, such as with passenger aircraft. There were some aeronautical engineers who insisted upon using the term “magnedyne” to refer to glossarian airships, though that wasn’t widely adopted for two reasons. The first is that diamagnetism wasn’t the only force at work with these devices, in fact, no-one knew precisely what phenomena were responsible for the levitator’s function, even though the math required to build and operate them was no mystery. Some superstitious folk insisted that fell sorcery was at play, what with the age-old tales surrounding the crystals that were used in the levitators’ construction, as well as the strange things that the levitators did, such as the occasional discharge of sickly green lightning (usually when the ship was on the ground), or the eerie, dissonant whine that drove weak-willed aeronauts to utter madness and even suicide. The second reason that the term “magnedyne” never became commonplace is because another did instead, as you’ll see two paragraphs down.
The first Rossberan power to get its hands on glossarion levitator technology, after the Karadenians developed it, was Arcadia, but the first to actually build an airship using it was Sondor. The Sondorians immediately developed a larger, more aerodynamic, and more heavily-armed version of the galleon, with the levitators staggered in two rows. The ship was called a bireme, after the ancient surface ship with two rows of oars on each side. The siege bireme, the first of its type, was designed primarily for bombarding ground targets, with twelve 300mm siege mortars pointing down, double the galleon’s bombardment capability. For defense against fighter aircraft, the bireme also had 32 machine guns on the upper deck.
The flying galleon was a strange combination of old and new technology. Karaden was the last place, other than perhaps Okseetia, that anyone would expect new technology to be developed. That being said, other than the levitators themselves, most of the technology on the novel airship was decades behind everything else on the continent. The airframe was in two parts: the cage, which included the buttresses that the levitators were mounted to, and the internal structure of the wings. These were the only structural components made of steel. The rest of the airship was made of wood, like an old sailing galleon, a type of ship that the Karadenians still used, though many of them had modern frigate rigs, and sometimes even steam engines. The thick timbers of the flying galleon’s hull protected the crew and the internal machinery from most anti-aircraft fire, but the deck gunners and pilothouse were still vulnerable to attacks from fighters. The Sondorians sought to remedy all of these problems with their design, and chose to build the entire ship out of steel. This was the first “armoured airship,” a classification that nearly all glossarian airships fell into, and so it became popularised. The large pilothouse was still vulnerable, and multiple solutions to this problem were proposed and implemented over time. For the time being, thick glass (enough for each pane to stop one or two stray bullets) was considered sufficient, as long as enough guns covered the bow of the ship to keep fighters at bay. However, as different types of armoured airships were developed, new problems arose, and new solutions were proposed to counter them.
Initially, the Arcadians chose to go smaller, rather than larger, and focus on speed, more than firepower. The Sondorians had need of a ship with massive amounts of firepower to take back Turro, but the Arcadians needed only to defend their borders, and they did not wish to expend tremendous resources on ships that were vulnerable to fighter aeroplanes. Therefore, the Arcadians chose to develop a small gunboat. With only four levitators, the ship was much easier to control, and the pilots could make use of the ship’s full range of motion quickly, eliminating the need for supplemental airscrews. The gunboat has a top speed of 100 knots, making it extremely difficult to target, though this wasn’t enough of an advantage during the jungle incursion that the Taressimians made into northern Arcadia. Arcadian patrols were extremely thin, and the situation was the complete reverse of the one at Xiamazdu. At Xiamazdu, the Taressimians were outnumbered, and the flying galleon was able to get into position to strike the decisive blow, only because of the tremendous number of Karadenian fighters and anti-aircraft guns that the Taressimians had to get through. In the jungles of northern Arcadia, each gunboat encountered was able to make multiple passes and blast holes in the Taressimian positions before either retreating (usually from running low on fuel or ammunition) or being brought down by an extremely lucky hit. The loss of men and materiel on the Arcadian side was a fraction of that on the Taressimian side, meanwhile the latter advanced further into the jungle, and began suffering heavy losses from the natural environment, be that crocodiles, disease, sinkholes, or simply getting lost. The forces of Taressimian Southern Command ended up simply scattering and disappearing, never to be heard from again.
Despite their excellent performance, the gunboats were too few to have decisively stopped the Taressimian invasion. Instead, they slowed it down and dispersed it, leaving nature to stop the Taressimian forces. With their short range, light armour, and relatively feeble weapons, there was no way that gunboats would be sufficient for a counterattack to send the Taressimians a message. After the Taressimian forces under Western Command were lost, the Karadenian Campaign was handed over to Southern Command, which chose to invade Karaden from the southwest, hence the invasion of Arcadia. Had the target of the invasion actually been Arcadia, Southern Command would have sent its forces farther west, so the the army would cross northern Arcadia through scrub in the much drier eastern half of the country. Central Command had, so far, wisely tried to avoid starting a war with a third nation, but that failed. Arcadia was now at war with Taressim, and the Arcadians intended to strike back hard, demonstrating to their rival southern powers that they could give the Martial State what for, just like Sondor or Karaden. To this end, they developed the largest and heaviest armoured airship yet, the 110-metre, 6000-tonne Interdictor, designed specifically for a long-range strategic attack across the Kraichis desert into Taressimian territory. The target was Southern Command itself.
The Interdictor was designed with the strange goal of bringing ancient Arcadian naval combat into the sky, hence the addition of a ram on the ship’s bow. Naturally, this meant that the pilothouse had to located elsewhere. The ship’s bridge, located atop the stern, was where the ship was commanded from in combat, but most of the pilots operating the controls to the levitators were in the rear-facing pilothouse. Since this section of the ship was still vulnerable, there were duplicate controls on a lower deck, which had thicker armour, and sliding hatches inside to close off the narrow windows. When the ship was under heavy attack, most of the pilots would be flying blind, relying on orders from the bridge. When not under attack, the pilots would relocate to the upper pilothouse, with larger windows for greater visibility. This meant also, that the ship had to approach its landing site while flying backwards. The only pilots would could see forward were those who controlled the airscrews, rudders, and first two pairs of levitators, which were used in conjunction with the rudders to control the position of the ship’s bow. A ramming manoeuvre was a rather complicated task to carry out, and the ship’s top speed of only 60 knots, or only 45 with a full load, meant that even most dirigibles would be able to evade the Interdictor in close combat. Still, a single successful ramming manoeuvre set a precedent for the second generation of armoured airships.
When the first armoured ships appeared, there was no armour-piercing ammunition with which to defeat them. Therefore, shipbuilders began putting rams on their ironclads, hoping that ramming manoeuvres would work against other armoured ships. Success was limited, but because of the increase in fuel efficiency, sometimes as high as 15% (I didn’t just make that up, by the way), the rams stayed, even after armour-piercing ammunition became commonplace. Likewise, when the first armoured airships appeared, they were too fast to be targeted with guns powerful enough to destroy them, so other means had to be employed. Fighter aeroplanes were sometimes armed with incendiary “balloon-buster” rockets to set dirigibles on fire, so the first thought was to develop shaped charges that could be fitted to small wing-mounted rockets or to large, fuselage-mounted “aerial torpedoes.” These met with extremely limited success, owing mostly to the fact that punching a hole in the hull of an armoured airship will not cause it to lose any buoyancy whatsoever. In order to bring down an armoured airship, a weapon must be able to penetrate deep into the hull and cause massive internal damage, knocking out the power generators, or otherwise disconnect the levitators from their power supply. The obvious solution, at least to the Arcadians and Sondorians, was to ram an enemy ship at an oblique angle, thus sheering off the levitators, much as how, in ancient naval combat, rams were used to break off the oars of enemy ships, rather than to puncture the hull. To prevent this, the Arcadians made the bows of their ships wider, shielding their buttresses from frontal attack. The Sondorians, on the other hand, added baffles between the buttresses, each of which offered little protection on its own, but together would be enough of an impediment that any ramming attempt would be only half as effective as in the case of an unmodified ship. Immediately after the appearance of the Interdictor, the Sondorians began adding baffles to their armoured airships, beginning with a modified version of the original siege bireme.
The new siege bireme also had a flying bridge on top of the gun deck, with enough room for four pilots. During heavy combat, the main pilothouse would be evacuated, and each of the pilots would be stationed deep inside the ship, maintaining control of the levitators, but flying blind, relying on orders from the flying bridge. In the event that the flying bridge was knocked out and the lead pilots killed, then the main pilothouse would be reoccupied, and the ship would retreat to relative safety if no further orders were received. This procedure ran counter to most military culture of the day, in which retreating without being specifically ordered to do so was punishable by death, but when it came to armoured airships, the machine was considered too valuable to sacrifice. The Arcadians in particular knew than they were making an extremely dangerous gambit by sending their most powerful armoured airship all the way to Southern Command with only one ship to escort it, but the alternative was to send a fleet of dirigibles that would be destroyed before being able to accomplish anything; doing nothing at all would have been preferable. Nevertheless, the gambit paid off, beginning the second stage of the armoured airship arms race. Shortly after the Sondorians built their first airship that was marginally better defended, they built two dedicated escort airships, Guardian and Interceptor, “ram biremes,” that eschewed bombardment weapons for greater speed, agility, and anti-aircraft firepower.
The ram bireme was the first “second-generation” armoured airship, and the first to introduce more complex electrical control systems, allowing fewer pilots to have full control over the ship’s levitators. The ram bireme still had 22 pilots (one for each levitator), like the earlier siege bireme, but most of those pilots sat in the hull, simply monitoring the levitators, remaining in contact with the lead pilots at all times, to make sure that all the levitators were doing as they were supposed to. It wasn’t as idle as it sounds, given that the control systems were so wonky that they rarely functioned precisely as intended, and there was still a great deal of coordination between all 22 pilots to get the ship to execute complicate manoeuvres. Ultimately, the intent was to build a fleet of armoured airships centred about the old siege biremes, with the modified siege biremes forming a perimeter about them, and the ram biremes forming a perimeter about all the siege biremes. A formation consisting of seven siege biremes and six ram biremes would have enough firepower to destroy anything in its path. The formation’s only vulnerability would be from above, and even that would be fairly tenuous, at least until the Interdictor was finally dethroned as the most powerful armoured airship in the sky. That, however, is a story for another time, when the northern powers finally enter the fold.