AIRSHIPS, for many people, will conjure the image of the Hindenburg igniting with terrible effect, as it tried to dock in New Jersey in 1937. It was widely assumed that the idea of the airship as a method of mass transport perished that day along with 35 of those on board. Aeroplanes replaced airships.
On March 22nd, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a British firm, unveiled a vessel that it hopes will reignite the airship technology. The Airlander 10 is the longest aircraft in the world. At 92 metres, it stretches nearly 20 metres further than an A380 jumbo, and holds over 28,000 cubic metres of helium.
Technically, it is a hybrid. 60% of its lift comes from the gas that inflates it and 40% comes from its aerodynamic shape when propelled.
Its owners reckon that it could stay in the air for five days. It can take off and land vertically even on the most testing of surfaces, including ice or water.
Several uses of the airship have been mooted, including carrying heavy equipment to out-of-the-way places, such as mining camps, that do not have runways for more conventional aircraft. But HAV thinks it has the potential for commercial travel.
According to the Guardian, the firm is already working on a blueprint for a larger Airlander that could support entire suites of rooms.
A study by the University of Lincoln into whether airships could once again be a viable form of passenger transport trumpeted their green credentials. A helium-filled airship is much quieter than a jet, meaning it could operate around the clock.
Furthermore, it releases little carbon dioxide, relatively speaking, into the atmosphere, although it is worth noting that the world’s reserves of helium are low.
The study suggests that in order to move fast enough to satisfy travellers’ demands, the craft of the future would be powered using photovoltaic cells. Such an aircraft might be capable of speeds of 200km/h at an altitude of 15 kilometres reckon the researchers. The current Airlander is reckoned to have a top speed of 150km/h and is powered by four 4-litre diesel engines.
HAV says it wants to built 12 Airlanders a year by 2018, each accommodating as many as 48 passengers. Although the Airlander faces 200 hours of test flights before it can be used commercially, the technology is now much safer than in the day of the Zeppelins.
According to Stephen McGlennan, HAV's boss, quoted in the Independent, “The lifting gas used is inert helium. This is the least reactive element and therefore won't burn, explode or do anything much except ensure that fires or other types of reaction stop instantly.”
The Zeppelins of old, on the other hand, were filled with hydrogen, which is much more reactive.
It strikes Gulliver that floating to a meeting across the ocean in an airship would be a wonderfully civilised and relaxing way to arrive. But it would also be a slow one: the cruising speed of a jumbo is four times faster than even the University of Lincoln's blue-sky estimates for an airship. There has also been little mention of the likely fare.
According to the Smithsonian, the smaller Airlander costs around $25m to build and has around a third of the running costs of a jumbo, though it carries far fewer passengers. But history suggests that it could be affordable.
A ticket on that fateful Hindenburg journey from Frankfurt to New Jersey set its doomed passengers back 1,000 reichsmarks, $250 at the time or around $4,200 today, almost exactly the same as a first class ticket on Lufthansa would now. It would be interesting to know whether the nervous flyer would opt for an airship today.