When Ron Hochstetler graduated from Purdue with a degree in aviation technology, he didn't know how different his path would be from the other graduates of his class. Though trained to work with the helicopters and jets that we today associate air travel, Ron became fascinated with a different type of craft. An aircraft that "belongs in the sky."
Now, twenty years later, Ron is one of the world's leading experts in "lighter than air" technology. It's an industry that many believe died with the Hindenburg. But Ron makes his case...the golden age of airships may be yet to come. And we're happy to have him as this week's EcoGeek of the Week.
EcoGeek: How does someone go about becoming an internationally recognized airship expert?
Ron Hochstetler: When I graduated from college I saw lots of people going into major technical fields where pretty much everything had already been developed and the technologies they'd be working on were very mature. Not much room for a new guy to make a new mark. But then I read an article about a little company in Britain (Airship Industries) that wanted to build modern technology airships. I figured here was a part of aviation that was cool, was still pretty much unexploited, and was made up of such a small cadre of people that just about any contributions I could make would have some significance. The short answer is: if you pick a small pond a lot of the splashes you make will be big ones.EG: In as brief a list as possible, what kind of advantages does airship travel hold over traditional air travel?
RH: The best word picture I can give you is to refer back to where we left off, with the Hindenburg. It could carry a whopping 100 tons of payload and people at a top speed of 83 mph (cruise was closer to 65 mph). Yet it was powered by only four diesel engines each with a maximum of about 1,200 hp. so for less than the horsepower of one engine on a four engine C-130 turboprop cargo plane (that only carries 20 tons) the Hindenburg could fly from Southern Germany all the way to the US in about 72 hours. The transport airship exchanges time for fuel, and yields space. What I mean is that with airship you can travel to your destination consuming a fraction of the fuel required by a jet aircraft of the same payload capacity but at a slower airspeed. Your airship cruising speed is about one tenth of the jet's speed but because you're traveling slower than the jet your airship cabin area can be quite spacious and give you an air travel experience that is actually comfortable. The airship could be outfitted with broadband access to the Internet, satellite phone communications, and all the media entertainment you can imagine. You could have wide open sightseeing windows; sit down dinners, or full sleeping quarters where you can stretch out in a real bed. And this would not just be for the First Class crowd; the airship has the extravagance of space, and can offer plenty to every passenger.
EG: Could travel by airship be more efficient than automobile or train travel? What about barge shipping?
RH: Barges and ships are among the most fuel efficient ways to ship anything. In countries where you have efficient ground transportation systems the airship is not going to be competitive. Where the airship can compete is with short distant air transport, or with ground transportation in those places where the ground transport system is poor to non-existent. Here I'm talking about passenger transport, if you switch to considering the airship for its cargo hauling capabilities the news gets even better. If the stuff you what to haul won't fit into your aircraft, your ground transport vehicles, or over your highways and railways; and you're not in a real hurry to ship it, then the cargo airship begins to make economic and fuel efficient sense. If designed properly an airship can do vertical load transfers. That means you can hover over the stuff you want to pick up, lift it up to the airship by an internal hoist, and then motor off to where you want to put your stuff back on the earth. This type of cargo airship would be used more like a "flying forklift" and would be utilized to move outsized or heavy things around a city, construction site, or around a region where there are insufficient bridges or roads. This type of airship could really change the way modern society moves its stuff because it doesn't depend on highways, railroads, bridges (that sometimes crash), or airports. You have almost complete freedom to move just about anything, just about anywhere, just about any time, provided you're not in a hurry.
EG: What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing the airship industry?
RH: The technology is available today to build airships with payloads of up to approximately 90 tons lift. With an R&D; program focused on certain key enabling airship technologies it should be possible to build airships up to the range of around 350 tons lift. The problem is that we need good business and engineering leadership to craft the airship development programs that can build the modern airships that society will use. The airship industry has no shortage of enthusiasts, visionaries, and passionate dreamers, but it's almost barren of the steely eyed business people who have the professionalism and expertise to first build the solid enterprise that can build the airships. I guess it's just easier for these people to get an MBA and go manage an IT start-up or a Fortune 500 company. The airship market is there, the technology is in our hands, but where do we find the business architects who have the courage to take on this great challenge?
The other obstacle if you can call it that is the scale of the airship. The bigger the airship the more efficient and useful it is, and the more challenging to construct. Eventually the sheer size of the craft begins to tax the engineers as they devise ways to manufacture and join the increasingly large (and light weight) structures that make up the ships.
EG: Are there any particularly exciting advances in airships that might make the technology more feasible in the near future?
RH: The new high strength fabrics, light weight aircraft composite materials, and computer aided design tools have revolutionized airship design. Modern computer simulation and modeling also allow us to better navigate around inclement weather conditions. In the old days the pilots of the big airships had to take their best guess as where the bad weather was. Now we can minutely plan every flight route to minimize the impact of headwinds, and actually take advantage of the weather to lower our airship fuel consumption by 20% to 50 % depending on the particular journey. The other interesting change has been the advances in hydrogen powered systems. The airship has some very unique qualities that enable it to probably be the most fuel efficient (and environmentally friendly) air transport system possible. The large surface area of the airship causes the high aerodynamic drag that limits its airspeed, but that surface area can be used to carry thousands of square feet of solar cells to provide electric power for the ship's propulsive needs. The non-flammable helium inside the ship also provides a perfect environment in which to store hydrogen fuel containers that can provide hydrogen not as a lifting gas (as was used in the Hindenburg) but as a fuel for either a fuel cell propulsion system or simply to burn in conventional internal combustion propulsion engines. These technologies could be used to produce "zero emissions" transport airships with the ability to carry hundreds of tons of cargo or people over distances of hundreds or even thousands of miles.
EG: Are there applications that airship travel is particularly suited for?
RH: Slightly more than half of all passenger jet aircraft travel is over distances of approximately 400 miles or less. Airship passenger travel gets more competitive with jet travel as the overall trip distance decreases (and as jet fuel becomes more expensive). But you have to factor in the "total trip" time, which includes travel to the airport, parking the car, going through security, boarding the plane, waiting for clearance to take off, etc The amount of time spent at either end of your journey (whether by jet or airship or whatever) remains the same regardless of how long the trip itself is. So, if you can use the airship's ability to do a vertical landing in or near the locations you really want to get to or from, then you have a good shot at reducing the total point-to-point travel time enough to make the airship quite acceptable for short distance air travel.
EG: You're obviously captivated and excited by this technology...how did you catch the bug, and why do you think you've stuck with it for so long?
RH: I got interested in airships when the Goodyear blimp came to Purdue University for a football game. The ship was moored out at the University airport where I was taking most of my aviation classes. My parents had come down to visit me that weekend so we all went out to see the ship after dark. The ship was surrounded by a ring of ground lights which made it shine silvery against the night sky. The door of the ship was open and my dad and I could barely see inside because the ground crew had ballasted the ship to be slightly light so her tail was high and her landing gear was about a foot off of the ground. My mother wanted to see inside the ship so she grabbed the hand rail that runs along the side of the gondola and pulled the airship down to the ground! At that moment I knew this aircraft was something completely different from the airplanes and helicopters I'd been training on. I saw that this was an aircraft that actually belonged in the sky, and I decided I belonged with the airships! I have no regrets after more than 20 years in this business. I also have great optimism that the airship's golden age has not past but is truly upon us. The conjunction of soaring fuel costs and increasing concern about aviation's contribution of GHGs to the environment is causing mainstream decision makers to reconsider the qualities of the airship. I'm convinced that the modern airship is part of the solution set for dealing with global warming, in addition to providing an affordable and sustainable air transportation option to the developed and developing countries.