In few fiery seconds, the era of the passenger airship had come to an end when the Hindenburg burst into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey on 6th May 1937. The leviathan airship, inflated with flammable hydrogen, had taken off from Frankfurt, Germany and was on her 63rd flight. Miraculously, 62 of the 97 passengers survived but the last fatal moments of the ship engulfed in flames was captured on film, and the horrific scene remain etched in millions of minds. Before the Hindenburg, some other hydrogen airships were also destroyed by fire because hydrogen burns easily.
Now, 80 years later, with the advancement in lighter-than-air technology, materials, aerodynamics, and safe and non-reactive helium gas, the airship has returned in a big way. The world’s largest and futuristic aircraft, the Airlander 10, is a hybrid between an airplane, helicopter, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Sixty percent of its lift comes from helium and 40% from the aerodynamic design, hence it’s called the Hybrid Airship.
On 6th August, at 4 a.m., Airlander 10 was piloted out of its jumbo hangar at Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire, to get it ready for its first flight this year. Drawing it out of its hangar, test pilot Dave Burns exquisitely maneuvered it for five minutes with only six meters of wiggle room from its fin tip to the hangar doors. Then it was towed 30 minutes and moored to a mast outside the hangar at Cardington Airfield. The unveiling of the giant hybrid airship — 302-foot (92 meters) long, 143-foot wide, and 85-foot high-is a giant leap forward for a multimillion-dollar aircraft that few years ago appeared doomed.
The airship is 50 feet longer than the biggest commercial jets. It was built in 1990s for the US government, to carry out constant long-range surveillance for the US Army. After one flight in New Jersey in 2012, cutbacks in defense, returned the airship to the British firm Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), who bought back the rights to the project. It was totally overhauled and developed for nine years and is a culmination of decades of research into lighter-than-air (LTA) technology, led by the late Roger Munk. HAV’s Technical Director, Mike Durham said, “It was a very smooth first journey for Airlander and she behaved beautifully. We’re delighted to have reached this significant milestone.”
Watching a video of the vast airship being inflated by helium and suspended in midair is like watching a scene from a science fiction movie. Patented in 2001, it could be used for surveillance, communications, and transportation of passengers and cargo, even in remote areas with no infrastructure, and, what’s more, the mission and operations could be achieved from door-to-door. Airlander10 has permission from UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for the flight tests and needs 200 hours of flight hours before getting permission to fly commercially. “For the people on board and the people down below, it’s going to look quite a sight,” Chief Test Pilot David Burns told the BBC.
And for the officials at EASA and CAA and the innovative Airlander’s team at HAV, it will take some discussions to apply regulations to a hybrid aircraft that is neither an airplane nor an airship. Lighter-than-air technology exponent Barnes Wallis, who designed the airship R100 in the 1970s had identified the obstacles that prevented the airship from becoming a commercial success. Durham says these have been eliminated. “Advances in materials, avionics and aerodynamic design mean that we have overcome the lion’s share of these obstacles.”
So how is the 2016 hybrid airship different from the airships of the early twentieth century? First, it is half the length, but still the largest aircraft. It replaces the flammable hydrogen bags with a safe and inert helium envelope. Helium is the second least reactive noble gas and does not burn. This airship is not burdened with heavy inner framework. The buoyancy from 1.3 million cubic feet of helium allows it to stay aloft for days and it has zero noise and carbon pollution. It can lift much more than airplanes and other unmanned aerial vehicles, (UAV) — up to ten tons (22,050 pounds), hence the name Airlander 10.
Now attached to the Towable Moving Mast (TMM), the aircraft is resting on the Castering Ground Cradle (CGC), which supports the fuel tank and has its own wheels. “My thanks to the whole business for getting us here. The entire team is looking forward to the final series of tests outside before taking to the skies for the first time,” said Durham.
The hybrid also has another name Martha Gwyn, named after the wife of businessman Philip Gwyn, but her team calls her Mary. Last week Mary passed her checkup for her engines, generators, and systems and will undergo some more ground tests before she takes off, on her maiden flight. Hybrid airships do not need a runway like airplanes. These silent environment friendly aircraft with zero emissions are touted to be the future of air travel. They can rise vertically, hover over open water and land on any surface, even sand, water, snow, and ice.
If HAV is leading the re-emergence of airship technology with futuristic Airlander 10, USA’s Lockheed Martin is not far behind. The global security and aerospace company also landed a contract in March 2016 to make 12 airships for $480 million for UK’s Straightline Aviation (SLA). HAV plans to manufacture 12 Airlanders a year by 2018. Passenger airships will be able to carry up to 48 people. In all likelihood, there appears to be a multi-billion-dollar market in the next 20 years. The Airlander Club has over 2,000 members and is raising awareness about this new mode of air travel.