Airships are go
Back to the future
Courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles
The arresting images and black and white film of the Hindenburg disaster unfolding in May 1937, is etched into history. A German manufactured, hydrogen filled Zeppelin erupted into a fireball while trying to dock at the Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, in the United States.
35 of the 97 people on board, died that day. The publicity which followed was burnt indelibly into the public’s psyche and a new era of passenger transport came to a premature and abrupt end.
What happened to airships?
As a mode of transport, the matter was closed. Blimps, as the US Navy called them, continued to be used for surveillance work during World War Two. The American Blimp Corporation continued to manufacture airships for advertising purposes, while bigger, hi-tech airships continued to be built by Zeppelin in Germany.
Smaller variations like the Goodyear blimp, have been hovering over big sporting events for years in the US. Rich tourists in Germany are still being treated to sight-seeing trips over their countryside, safe in the knowledge that the gas lifting them gently into the air is Helium, an inert gas, not the highly flammable hydrogen, which sits next door in the periodic table.
The advantage of airships
In 1936, the Hindenburg made 10 trips to America. The 1937 season opened with a single round-trip to Rio de Janeiro before starting a second year of service between Europe and the US. American Airlines had contracted with the Hindenburg’s operators to shuttle passengers from Lakehurst to Newark for flight connections by plane.
It was a luxurious way to travel which is now set to be repeated for those with time, money and can afford an environmental conscience.
An Airlander airship will be returning to the North Pole for the first time since 1928. Date of departure is yet to be confirmed but somewhere between 2024-26. The web site is intriguing as you get a sense of why passengers will be expected to pay $80,000 for the 38 hour expedition.
There are only 8 double cabins onboard, with a level of comfort and service you might expect on a luxury yacht. The airship will fly as low as 300 feet above the Artic landscape, with an average cruising speed of 50 knots, all of which can be observed in detail, through the large panoramic windows.
Unlike an aircraft, it can land almost anywhere, including the North Pole. The first of these modern airships, Airlander 10, will reduce carbon emissions by 75% over a comparable aircraft, while still using 4 combustion (fossil fuel) engines. It can stay in the air for a maximum of 5 days, carrying a payload of 10 tonnes and has a range of 4,000 nautical miles. By 2030, the engines will be all-electric, creating a zero emission form of travel.
It’s not just experiential flights for rich explorers. The ability to go anywhere without expensive airport infrastructure, makes them particularly useful for hard to reach remote locations. They are ideally suited for communication and surveillance because of their ability to remain airborne for so long. And they offer the opportunity to reach areas which are underserved by existing transport links.
Not just luxury travel
Nearly half of all regional flights, connect cities that are less than 230 miles away, producing a significant amount of carbon dioxide in the process. Aircraft designed for long-distance travel are routinely city hopping and we, the public, would be better served with more rail infrastructure. Failing that, why not a fleet of modern airships?
The same Airlander 10 destined for the North Pole, will be reconfigured to a 100 passenger airship connecting Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca in four and a half hours. The CO2 footprint per passenger will be reduced by 90%, which is why the Spanish airline, Air Nostrum, has signed an agreement reserving ten of the new Airlanders for delivery from 2026.
Other routes under consideration, presumably with other airlines, include Liverpool to Belfast, which would take five hours, 20 minutes, Oslo to Stockholm in six and a half hours or Seattle to Vancouver in a little over four.
The airship acts like a fast ferry, connecting places with water or hills in-between, where rail networks would be impossible or too costly to build. The convenience of no longer needing an airport, makes it similar to catching a train, which is more likely to be closer to the passenger’s final destination.
Isn’t helium running out?
Modern airships avoid the need for ground crew and infrastructure when landing through one of two methods. Hybrid airships are slightly heavier than air, which means they require an aerofoil shape to create lift. It means the airship sits on the ground after landing and the pilot can manoeuvre them in the air without assistance.
Buoyancy-controlled ships, alter their heaviness depending on whether they’re climbing, descending or cruising.
Both systems have the ability to land anywhere, both use helium gas.
Like hydrogen, helium is light. But unlike hydrogen, it doesn’t readily combine with other elements like oxygen, which means it doesn’t combust. It also escapes the earth’s atmosphere easily when it reaches the surface, which could be a longer term problem.
Helium is the second most common element in the universe, but much rarer on earth. It’s the only element on our planet which is non renewable. Generated deep underground through the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium over millions of years, it seeps up through the earth’s crust, getting trapped in pockets of natural gas where it can be captured.
Helium is in demand today, but not for airships. It liquefies at very low temperatures, which makes it ideal for cooling hot things like superconductors, used to image the human body in MRI scanners. It’s also used in the space programme, specifically rockets for companies including Space X.
Hybrid Air Vehicles, the company behind Airlander 10 are playing it cool. There are 50 years of known helium reserves left, based on current consumption. One Airlander fill, is a tiny fraction of 1% of the reserve and once filled no helium is lost.
Competition is hotting up
The AS700 airship is in development by the Aviation Industry Corp of China, the country’s major aircraft manufacturer. With such a vast landmass, there appears to be as much interest in accessing remote locations for mineral prospecting, surveillance and emergency rescue as there is for tourist or commercial travel.
Flying Whales on the other hand is a $250m, ambitious French start-up, which plans to manufacture in Bordeaux, Montreal and Jingmen in China. 25% of the business is Chinese owned, a subsidiary of the state owned Aviation Industry Corp of China.
They expect to mass produce the ships and have a memorandum of understanding with an international airport operator to build 150 airship bases.
Lockheed Martin in California, famous for snooping reconnaissance planes, may soon gain fame for its hybrid airship programme. Launched at the Paris Air Show in 2015, the LMH-1 is a similar size and shape to the Airlander. Once double-digit orders have been made, they will start manufacturing in Palmdale, California.
Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) founded in 2007 in Bedford, appear to be ahead of the current competition with their Airlander.
The Airlander 10, which was a failed development for the US military, cancelled in 2013, was rebuilt for civilian projects. For serious heavy lifting, customers will have to wait for the Airlander 50, which is already designed, but isn’t in production yet.
Encouragement of sorts, has been given by the British government which has given £1m towards the development of electric motors, making this mode of transport, truly zero emission.
That ought to sort it.
Book me in 😊