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I don't if I use the correct vocabulary. By "fin", I mean the control surface at the tail of the airship. As a control surface, it contains a moving part.

As airship used to have at least 4 fins at the tail: an elevator (1 fin on the right side, another one the left side) and a rudder (one fin on the bottom and one on the top, I highly suspect both are useful to be sure at least one is in undisturbed airflow while cruising at any positive or negative angle of attack). This seems reasonable to ensure both redundancy and simplicity (not mixing pitch and yaw controls). Yet, aircraft with V-tail prove that we can reduce the number of mobile control surfaces located on the tail, but it does not seems to be reasonnable in all cases.

For the Zeppelin NT, only 3 fins are used. I clearly imagine the vertical one is used for yaw control only. The 2 others are shaped as an inverted V, thus I imagine they mix both yaw and pitch control as V-tail does.

What is the rational behind the choice of number of control surfaces? Why do the Zeppelin NT uses 3 of them?

Wikipedia provides few reasons I fail to understand:

  • it states less fins allow weight gains. for me, less fins implies bigger fins to provide the same authority, thus mitigating this point
  • it states the loss of one fin can be compensated by the 2 other. For me, the loss of one fin would provide a rolling moment when trying to compensate, and there is no other surfaces to mitigate it (on an aircraft, coupling is possible because it has wings)
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  • $\begingroup$ 2 is not enough while 4 is too many. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2020 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @user3528438 if 4 was too many, other airship would not have 4 fins. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Jun 6, 2020 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ For each airship, there exists an integer n such that n-1 fins are not enough while n+1 fins are too many. For certain airships n=3, such as Zeppelin NT. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2020 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @user3528438 then the question can be understood as "why n=3 for this airship?" $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Jun 6, 2020 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @user3528438 your are saying 3 is the optimal number but not why 3. When I point out you don't give reason, you just basically say "I alreaddy told you because 3 is optimal, not more or less." without saying why 3. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Jun 6, 2020 at 20:49

2 Answers 2

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The likely reason would be ground clearance.

While it is hard to guess the reason for a relatively minor design decision like this, it seems that using four fins would complicate the tail design. Specifically, the airship would need to have a lower gondola or an X configuration for the tail, which may or may not impose a weight penalty on the tail structure.

As you note V control surfaces tend to be a net weight penalty once you factor in the higher loads placed on fewer surfaces. However, when the choice is between four small surfaces and three larger ones, the latter is likely to be more efficient.

You also note that the loss of one lateral surface would create a rolling moment, which is true, but this is the one situation where an actual "pendulum effect" (sigh) can be observed: the buoyant lift of the airship is directed against gravity, so it has a stable equilibrium point with the gondola pointed down, which simplifies the control problem.

Without knowing the critical load cases for that tail, it is hard to give a definitive answer, but this stands out as a plausible one.

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Actually, the Zeppelin NT has 4 "fins", if you include the gondola.

First, directional stability. As with rockets, 3 fins are fine, and the symmetrical body or fuselage or gas bag or whatever airship captains call it also assists in this function as well. You only need as much fin as is necessary to avoid uncomfortable stability overshoot. This dog should not wag its tail.

Now for side force, which is dependent not only on fins, but the balance of area above and below the vertical center of gravity. Because of the gondola side area, the 3 fin design actually may be superior in this respect.

One may want a great airship to point slightly into the wind. Again looking at area fore vs aft of the CG, fins are helping here.

Any worries about 3 fins needing heavier structure for sufficient strength? From the archives of aviation at airship speeds we have .... bracing wires!

The NT also has swiveling engine pods for control, and uses helium, making these "new technology" zeppelins safer than their more famous forebears.

Aircraft have successfully used 3 fins in the rear as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ even counting the gondola as a fin, it has less fins than a common blimp $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    May 7, 2020 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ Counting the gondola as a fin is a mighty stretch: most of the mass is concentrated in it, making its effective equivalent fin volume almost nill. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2020 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @AEhere supports Monica it would be great to know exactly where the CG is, but I would agree it is near the bottom. It would function as a "fin" for sideforce analysis. These ships may have a mass/side drag profile similar to a hang glider. They did anhedral the others a little. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2020 at 23:16

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