‘Jet blimp’ concept still unrealized, 60-plus years later


Amid stories focused on the final weeks of the 1952 US presidential campaign, including an article that Adlai Stevenson “wasn’t always so plain,” at least according to his sister, and charges that New York Republicans had paid children to boo President Harry Truman on his whistle-stop tour across that state, came a report claiming an aeronautics breakthrough in Europe.

Under the headline “Jet Blimp Is Reported By Italians,” the Associated Press noted on Oct. 12, 1952, the development of the world’s first “big jet-propelled helium-filled dirigible.”

The Italian newspaper Il Giornale d’Italia, the AP reported, claimed the blimp was 184 feet long, 42-1/2 feet in diameter and had been already been put through 14 successful test flights by Italians.

The Rome-based publication, the AP added, stated that much larger jet dirigibles were planned by the United States but were still in the “drawing-board stage.”

Giornale D’Italia did not specify the speed of the airship or how many men it would carry,” the wire service concluded.

It’s difficult to determine what became of Italy’s “jet blimps,” but given that dirigibles are still, for the most part, ponderous behemoths of the sky, it’s possible to assume one of the following:

  • That the Italian newspaper was being taken for a figurative ride by government officials in dire need of good press (Italy was in the midst of its sixth government in six years in late 1952);
  • Il Giornale d’Italia knowingly printing false information spoon-fed it by the government in an effort to help the nation regain prestige lost through Mussolini’s World War II debacle; or
  • The paper simply was printing a rumor, likely fed it by an “unnamed” government source, and didn’t bother with too much fact checking for fear that it would learn the story wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Whatever the case, more than sixty years later, while the latest generation of dirigibles are quite interesting – take Airlander, described as being as long as a football field, able to remain aloft for three weeks and able to circumnavigate the globe twice in one trip – they cannot be classed as jet blimps, at least in terms of speed.

Miami News article of Oct. 12, 1952, describing Italians' effort to develop "jet blimp."

Miami News article of Oct. 12, 1952, describing Italians’ effort to develop “jet blimp.”

In fact, it is difficult to find a top speed listed for many of the new hybrid airships.

One of the few that includes such a measure is Goodyear’s Zeppelin NT (with NT standing for “new technology”), which tops out at less than 75 miles an hour. While that’s an improvement from the 50 miles per hour that Goodyear’s older versions reach, it’s hardly a jet.

In fairness, it doesn’t appear Goodyear or anyone else is marketing their new-technology dirigibles as “jet blimps.”

Of course, the term “jet aircraft” is used to denote craft powered by gas turbine-based air-breathing jet engines, so a “jet blimp” wouldn’t necessarily have to reach speeds of several hundred miles an hour to be designated as such.

Six-plus decades later, it’s difficult to say what, if anything, the Italian government was really working on. Perhaps nothing more than an effort to bolster the national prestige of a state just beginning to recover from the devastation and ignominy of World War II.

Even so, given the Italians’ canny ability to design a stylish sports car, it’s interesting to imagine what their jet blimp would have looked like.

(Top: Artist’s rendering the long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle built for the US Army by Hybrid Air Vehicles.)

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