Airships were once the future of air travel. During the 1920s and ‘30s, passengers and cargo weren’t flown, but rather, airlifted to their destination. DULAG, the world’s first passenger airline, operated airships that serviced more than 34,000 passengers and completed 1,500 flights before World War I.
Today there are some that believe that airships are ready for a comeback. Among them is a UK design firm which recently introduced the Airlander, an aircraft the size of a football field which was created to push the limits of transportation. Unlike airplanes, Airlander can take off vertically, from just about anywhere. And unlike helicopters, it can carry a payload of 50 tons and stay afloat for weeks, long enough to circle the globe twice, say its creators.
The $40 million HAV 304 hybrid airship is not a blimp. The blimps you see at sporting events are essentially huge inflatable balloons, but the Airlander is sturdier and easier to navigate. In a way, the aircraft is the kind of breakthrough that aerospace engineers have been waiting for since the World War I era, when Zeppelins were used to transport passengers. But unlike those dated relics, which used flammable hydrogen gas, as in the Hindenburg disaster, the Airlander uses inert helium.
Up until the Hindenburg’s explosion in 1937, America had been prepping infrastructure in anticipation of a future where the world’s expanding fleet of dirigibles (lighter-than-air aircraft that rely on rudders and propellers) would dominate the skies.
The art deco spire on top the Empire State Building, for instance, was constructed as a docking terminal to load and unload passengers. The U.S. government was so convinced airships were going to be the next big thing, officials even began stockpiling billions of liters of helium. Of course, when it became obvious that the Zeppelins of the day weren’t very safe and the market for them crashed along with the Hindenburg, the helium was used for a more festive purpose, like party balloons.
Even though the Airlander may be 7 decades late for that plan to pan out, its technology still has the potential to revolutionize the aviation industry. For example, the best plan of aerospace companies to come up with a practical trans-oceanic, vertical take-off aircraft capable of lifting heavy cargo has resulted in multi-billion dollar military designs. The incredible cost of the current aircraft ideas make them unrealistic for commercial use.
“There is a transport gap,” explained Chris Daniels, Hybrid Air Vehicles’ head of communications. “Even road vehicles need roads, and trains need tracks. Ships need water, even airplanes need airports and the more rugged cross-country vehicles struggle with some surfaces and aren’t amphibious, either. We need something that can land and take-off vertically, be robust enough to land on many surfaces, and have the range and affordability to travel long distances.”
The 44,000 pound Airlander was designed to fit all of these needs. With a full tank of fuel, it is expected to stay airborne and operational for as long as three weeks. The company also says that the airship uses 80 percent less fuel compared to conventional aircraft.
The reason for the huge fuel economy is due, in part, to the ship’s lightweight and semi-rigid hull, which is made of a special Kevlar material that’s flexible, yet strong enough to withstand the impact of a shotgun blast.
Once airborne, the aircraft can reach a maximum speed of about 100 miles per hour. It lands with the help of vectored propulsors, or thrusters that gradually push the ship downward reducing the lift.
Under the aircraft, an air cushion landing system features amphibious pneumatic tubes that extend downward, enabling it to land just about anywhere. The Airlander, Daniels claims, can vertically descend onto bodies of water, ice, desert and rugged terrains such as scrubland, making it especially ideal for delivering heavy equipment to remote oil and mining sites.
“The great thing about helium,” he points out, “is that with each doubling in length of an airship, you get eight times the lifting capacity.”
While there is no target date for the sale of the aircraft, it isn’t unrealistic to imagine the ships could also someday be piloted as an alternative to commercial air travel, which in its current state, Daniels describes as an “unpleasant means to get somewhere desirable.”