Historical Look At Japan’s First Dirigibles

I was finally catching up on my reading the other day, when an article from the New Zealand newspaper, Clutha Leader dated September 26, 1911 – page 2, I discovered some information on Japan’s attempt to build the world’s then-largest dirigible…

It’s 1911… and aeroplanes have been flying across Europe for a few years, with the first successful crossing of the English Channel in 1909… so, why would you want to construct a dirigible?

All one can assume, is that Japan saw more pluses from dirigibles than with the new technology of aeroplanes/airplanes.

The first airplane had been flown over Tokyo in December of 1910… so Japan certainly did know of the technology.

I’m not saying that dirigibles were already yesterday’s news in 1911… we all know that they were long in use through WWI (Okay you, me and about 47 other people on the planet), and that they were used to ferry around Indiana Jones and his father in the 1930s. In fact, dirigibles were a viable transportation option for those that had the time and enjoyed the luxury… right up until May 6, 1937.

That was the date of the Hindenburg disaster… the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg that caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in Manchester Township, New Jersey, U.S.

There were 97 people on board: 36 passengers and 61 crewmen. I suppose it was lucky… the Hindenburg’s full passenger capacity was 70 people.

There were 35 fatalities: 13 passengers and 22 crewmen, and one poor unfortunate ground worker who died, for a total of 36 dead.

But we’re talking about 1911.

Here’s what that New Zealand newspaper wrote – please note that I have adjusted the formatting and added in metric conversions:

 A wonderful new dirigible airship, a record for the world, is reported to be now in course of secret construction in Japan.
Among its points are the following:
Speed—70 miles an hour (), enough to carry it through a hurricane at five miles an hour;
Staying Power—Can remain a week in the air, as 20 tons (18,143.7 kilograms) of benzine can be carried as fuel;
Lifting Power—12 tons (10,886 kilograms), double that of the British naval airship Mayfly, now in hiding at Barrow;
Driving Power—720 horsepower, divided by six motors, providing it with twice the power of the Mayfly;
Length—600 feet (182.88 meters), 90 feet (27.43 meters) longer than the Mayfly;
Diameter—50 feet (15.24 meters);
Crew—10 men;
Armament—Pneumatic cylinder bombs.

Most of the material that is being used is of Japanese manufacturer, but one English firm—a well-known sewing machine house—has received orders from the Japanese Government for a number of specially durable machines for use in sewing together the sections.

The airship is the result of sending out of a band of official experts who travelled through the great countries of the world during June, July and August of 1910 investigating the developments of aviation.

This is Japan’s second dirigible, the first, known as the Yabada Isaburo dirigible, having been finished about four months ago. That one was 400 feet (121.92 meters) long—half as long as the liner Olympic.

The new dirigible is expected to be attached to the Japanese navy at Yokosuka—the Japanese Portsmouth.  

So… this 1911 newspaper article from New Zealand mentions that the huge, secret dirigible Japan is building is actually the SECOND dirigible it built.

While the article says that the first dirigible was designed and built by Yabada Isaburo (surname first), that’s a newspaper error, as it was actually built by Yamada Isaburo (surname first).

These are the perils of trying to compile a historic database… people make mistakes.

For proper data, I found a website (http://www.j-aircraft.com/research/jas_jottings/japanese_airships.htm) that discusses Japan’s early aviation… but I’m just going to borrow from it – not relate it word-for-word…

What we know about Yamada, is that he owned a lifeboat manufacturing company, and he was the person who earned the right on behalf of the Japanese Army to fabricate the envelope (the balloon), as well as the gondola.

The first Japanese dirigible is known as the Yamada-shiki No. 1, a non-rigid type (a blimp, essentially, that lacks an internal structure – frame work).

Here’s an image of the burning wreckage of the Hindenburg, a rigid dirigible… you can see the frame work. Zeppelins are called semi-rigid airships, while blimps are pressure airships.

Yamada-shiki No. 1
Crew: 1, helm control was in the center of the gondola;
Length: 60 feet (18.3 meters);
Capacity: 56,500 cubic feet (1,600 cubic meters);
Gas type: Hydrogen;
Powerplant: 12 horsepower engine, with a pusher propeller (at rear of airship)

The gonodola was an open concept made of tubes in a triangular cross-section, and was almost as long as the balloon envelope itself. It hung below the envelope. The engine was in the middle of the gondola.

Steering was controlled by a single rudder at the rear, just behind the rear of the gondola. The flat, square of a rudder was festooned with the hinomaru (Japan’s sun flag).

Flight control—such that it was—was afforded by a small elevator between the gondola platform and the bow.

The Yamada-shiki No. 1.

On the first flight of the Yamada-shiki No. 1, it lifted off from Osaka (see image above). That’s also it in the top image depicting a Japanese postage stamp.

(By the way, you’ll notice that the style of dress invoked by the Japanese here in 1909 was the same as what any European would have worn, including straw hats.)

Soon after it lifted off, it began to lose large volumes of hydrogen gas, causing it to land, be refilled, and flown back to Osaka.

While no one seems to know what happened to the Yamada-shiki No. 1, it does not appear to have flown again.

This may be why Japan, when in the process of constructing its Yamada-shiki No. 2 dirigible as mentioned in the New Zealand newspaper article, it sought out sewing machine equipment from England to help it create a better seal when constructing the balloon envelope that would hold the gas.

Okay… so Japan got its hands on some British sewing machines.

But did it construct the Yamada-shiki No. 2 dirigible in accordance to the giant dimensions mentioned in the newspaper article?

No. Not even close.

While the Yamada-shiki No. 2 dirigible was larger than Yamada-shiki No. 1, it wasn’t close to the proposed 600 feet mentioned in the article.

Yamada-shiki No. 2
Length: 108 feet (32.9 meters);
Capacity: 53,000 cubic feet (1,500 cubic meters);
Gas type: Hydrogen;
Powerplant: 50 horsepower, four-cylinder water-cooled engine, with a pusher propeller (at rear of airship).

The gondola was similar in design to the Yamada-shiki No. 1, with an open concept made of tubes in a triangular cross-section, but it was wider, and not as long as the previous, about half the length of No. 1. It hung below the envelope. The larger engine was again positioned in the middle of the gondola.

Steering was controlled by a single larger rudder at the rear, just behind the rear of the gondola. The flat, square of a rudder was again decorated with the hinomaru (Japan’s rising sun flag – red circle on white background).

Flight control—such that it was—was afforded by a slightly larger elevator between the gondola platform and the bow.

So… what happened to it?

It depends. There are three options:

  1. Strong winds may have blown it away and badly damaged it without recovery in early February of 1911 during mooring tests.
  2. A ground explosion may have destroyed it (gas leak and flame – ka-boom!) on March 23, 1911 – before it’s second flight… implying there was a first flight.\
  3. It made its first flight in early May 1911, but it was badly damaged during an emergency landing near Osaka due to engine failure in February of 1912.

Uh… yeah…

As stupid as it sounds, dirigibles, and aeroplanes were constantly being damaged by high winds while on the ground…

A ground explosion? This would have been big news… and we would have seen mention of it somewhere, right?

Emergency landing? Sure… motors were still the weak link in all aviation craft at that time… especially since they weren’t using the stronger V8’s other aeroplanes were already using.

So… if you think that the conflicting reports of the demise of the Yamada-shiki No. 2 are bizarre… wait’ll we briefly discuss Yamada-shiki No. 3 and Yamada-shiki No. 4.

No one is sure if Yamada-shiki No. 3 was a different dirigible from No. 2… or if it was just a rebuilt No. 2 that was renamed.

Yamada-shiki No. 3 first flew in early June of 1911… able to make a round trip in the middle of September of 1911 between Osaka and Tokyo and return.

So… if it was a success, what did Japan do with it? This is where it gets silly. Reports say that it was sold to China.

Really? China… well… I suppose it’s possible, as it was to experience its Xinhai Revolution starting in October 10 of 1911… a revolution that overthrew the imperial dynasty (Qing Dynasty), replacing it the Republic of China when it ended on February 12, 1912.

This was NOT when China became communist… this was essentially the time—from 1912 to 1949, that China was in the midst of its own civil war… taken advantage of by Japan in the 1930s, eventually leading to the victorious Communist Party that continues to rule.

So… did a Japanese dirigible play any part in the overthrow of the ruling Qing dynasty, or was it purchased by the Qing Dynasty to help it against the usurpers?

I don’t know…

And then there’s Yamada-shiki No. 4 – again not a heck of a lot of details… which I suppose is fair, because we are talking about Japanese Army military operations.

Did it exist? Maybe. If this wasn’t the Yamada-shiki No. 2 that may may or may not have been sold as Yamada-shiki No. 3 to China, and it is a completely new dirigible (or one retrofitted with a new motor), we do know that the dirigible known as Yamada-shiki No. 4 had a 75 horsepower motor.

No data is available re: speed, dimensions… gas capacity… I’m thinking that Yamada-shiki No. 2 was retrofitted to become Yamada-shiki No. 3, and again retrofitted with a different motor to become Yamada-shiki No. 4

Do I believe that the dirigibles may have been purchased by China? No. Germany had far superior dirigibles, and China could have purchased one from them rather than some experimental one built by Japan.

So what happened to the supposed Yamada-shiki No. 4?

Who knows… again there’s a rumor that it was sold to China in 1913… making it the first dirigible to fly in China in August of 1913. It was then destroyed by a windstorm (see?!) while in its hangar.

Again… China in 1913? Right after the fall of the Qing Dynasty? Is the new ruling power of the Republic of China going to want a new dirigible from Japan? I suppose it’s possible… again… Germany.

It is documented that China did purchase 12 military aeroplanes from France in March of 1913…

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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