Airships are back – and their popularity is about to soar

AirlanderThe Airlander 10, part plane, part airship, flies for the first time (kind of)  at Cardington airfield in Bedfordshire

Check out my recent double spread in the i newspaper with additional content below or the original here. It appeared the day before the first flight.

I have written a wider ranging and more recent piece on the future of the airship for BBC Future which you can read here

How airships could return to our crowded skies

If you want the now well-known story of the Airlander, look up my piece for The  Independent here or The Economist here 

Crowds lined the country roads around Cardington in Bedfordshire on Sunday evening as people gathered to see what they hoped would be the start of a new golden age of the airship – or what they feared would be its death knell.

Instead of floating into the air on its first flight the Airlander 10 hybrid airship remained stubbornly on the grass of the nearby First World War airfield. The Airlander 10 nick-named the ‘flying bum’ is part-airship, part plane and billed as the largest aircraft in the world. It was if all these hopes and fears were keeping it pressed to the ground. Given what was riding on this first flight it was not surprising that when there was a last-minute technical glitch the Airlander remained land bound. It is not known when another attempt at lift-off will be made.

Cardington is the site of the long-forgotten Royal Airship Works, the nationalised company that pioneered airship building, starting in 1919. It was here, from the gargantuan Hangar No 1, that Britain’s last giant airship, the R-101, left for Karachi on its doomed maiden flight in 1930. The 48 passengers and crew who perished when the airship crashed in France are buried in a mass grave in the nearby parish churchyard – and with them was buried the British airship programme. One year later the works were closed.

Plucky startup

Today, Hangar No 1 is home to a plucky British startup called Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), recently nominated for Wired UK’s Innovation Award. The Airlander 10 was originally developed by HAV as a surveillance aircraft for the US military. When the project was cancelled due to spending cuts, they launched a campaign to return it to flight in the UK.

Hybrid airships are often forty percent plane and sixty percent airship. As well as using lift from its lighter-than-air helium gas to get it into the air like a traditional airship, they use what’s called aerodynamic lift created by it flying through the air like a plane. Hybrid airships are slower than a plane, but use less fuel and can potentially stay in the air for weeks at a time. They can carry heavier loads than conventional airships and can land without the need for extensive on-ground infrastructure.

Arctic mining

One potential use suggested for new hybrid airships like the Airlander is advertising and sight-seeing –  which is actually the job that the more conventional Goodyear Blimps already do. However, it has been suggested that one of their key market will be transporting heavy equipment to mines deep in the Arctic Circle, and carrying ore back on the return journey. In this way, the cost, danger and environmental destruction of the infamous ice roads of Alaska would be avoided. Disaster relief work would be another possible role for these airships – but that market is not thought to be large enough by itself to keep the industry afloat..

Airships, which could theoretically stay afloat for weeks at a time, could also provide the military with the around-the-clock surveillance that other air vehicles, which must refuel far more frequently, struggle to achieve. A little larger than an Airbus A380, the Airlander 10 can carry up to 10 tonnes, the same amount as a Chinook helicopter. HAV says it already has plans for the Airlander 50, an airship that will be to transport five times that.

“We are doing something completely new – we are pioneers – and it isn’t an easy task to predict the timing of everything perfectly,” Chris Daniels, head of partnerships and communications at HAV said yesterday after the failed test flight. “It would have been fantastic to have flown at the Farnborough Airshow. It would have been fantastic to have flown today. Everything just takes a little longer than originally expected.”

Hurdles that must be overcome

There are a number of hurdles that first must be overcome. HAV is yet to receive a single order – and there are a number of other companies in the race to build, fly and sell hybrid airships.

Lockheed P-791
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company – Palmdale P-791 Airship First Flight 01-31-2006 Photo by Bob Driver

Lockheed Martin is one. It’s hybrid airship project is based at its Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, which is more famous for the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance planes and the F-117 stealth fighter than airships. In 2006, the US defence giant launched a successful test flight of the P-791, a half size prototype of the airship it is planning to build now.The company’s bulbous LMH-1, which has a payload of 20 tonnes, then grabbed headlines when it was unveiled at the Paris Airshow last year. In March, UK-based Straightline Aviation signed a letter of intent to buy up to 12 airships at a cost of $480m (£372m). Last month they unveiled a robotic spider than can crawl across the envelope of an airship identifying pin hole sized leaks and repairing the while its still inflated.The LMH-1 could enter service in 2018. 

For Lockheed, it is the first of a family of airships that would eventually include a vehicle the size of an American aircraft carrier capable of carrying 500 tonnes. Yet, despite Lockheed’s evident progress, Daniels claims that in having a full-size prototype ready to go, HAV are “years ahead” of their American competitor.

The prize they are all after is a market for airships that analysts are sure is there, but no one really knows how big it is: it could be in the hundreds, it may well be many thousands. The twist is that they really need each other to be successful in order to build an industry they can then dominate.

Very competitive

“The players in this field are very competitive, but when pushed into a corner they admit that they need two or three other companies to be successful in order to build a successful industry,” says Ron Hochstetler, an aviation technology specialist at US-based technology and engineering company SAIC.

“There is definitely a market,” he adds. “However, it needs to be shown that airships are a reliable form of transportation.”

“Start small and then build larger airships is the approach everyone is taking,” says William Crowder, a senior fellow at the Logistics Management Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm

“However, the economics are better the larger the airship you can build. If you can get to 500 tonnes than the figure start to get very interesting.

“It’s the classic innovator’s dilemma,” agrees Hochstetler. “If you build it too small then its uneconomic. If you try and build it very large then you risk falling on your face.

If there is only one airship builder then the burden of making mistakes, learning lessons and creating standards falls to that builder. If there are others, then it can be shared. “Most credible customers are waiting for a first flight before committing to buy,” says Daniels. “We expect trials and demonstrations to be confirmed from that point onwards, leading to deposits on orders.

“We are very much aiming for an IPO [the initial public offering of shares in the company]. This will bring equity into the business for the next phase, which is turning it into a product.”

Major investment


Dr Bob Boyd, programme manager of Lockheed Martin Hybrid Airships, also accepts that for the burgeoning technology, competition will largely be a boon. “The P-791 was the first hybrid airship to fly, in 2006, and the Airlander will be the second,” he says. “It is about not just launching a technology, but building an industry. In March we took our first order. We are working through the terms and finance with them now. We just need a few more orders to launch our production line.

“This is a major investment for companies. It is not like buying a mobile phone for the first time. We have spent a lot of time with the regulators and customers so that everyone can understand what we are doing. Each of our airships is at a specific price point.”

In the end, says Hochstetler, the success of hybrid airships will lie in the ability of their manufacturers to demonstrate the technology is safe, reliable and cost-effective. “The first flight for the Airlander will be a very important milestone for the cargo airship, as it shows that it can be done. However, one flight is just a stunt. You need to show your customers that you have the skill and expertise to operate it. You need to fly, fly and fly again.”

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