Airships, dirigibles and blimps are an exciting green alternative to airplanes and helicopters. They can carry heavy loads long distances with very little fuel, with most of the heavy lifting being done with lighter than air gases. But they have also had some spectacular failures, including hydrogen-filled Hindenburg and the British R101, which launched from Cardington in the UK and crashed in France, killing 48 people in 1930.
Now, flying from the same airfield and hangar, the Airlander 10 took its first flight on August 17. It was a short flight, only 19 minutes, 500 foot altitude and only 35 knots speed, but it is perhaps the start of a new era of low-carbon transportation. It is also not going to catch fire, because it is filled with helium, not hydrogen. TreeHugger used to worry about using so much helium in blimps, but major new fields have been discovered that lessen the worry about peak helium.
All test objectives were met during the flight. These included the safe launch, flight and landing of the Airlander 10 and a series of gentle turns at increasing speed. Some technical tests on its hull pressure were also undertaken.
Airships have a few advantages over other flight tech; they are quiet, they don’t pollute nearly as much, since their engines are not doing the heavy lifting, but are for control and movement. The Airlander has 4- 325 hp, 4 litre V8 direct injection, turbocharged diesel engines; that’s smaller than the engine on a pickup truck. Most of the lift is provided by the helium, but as much as 40 percent of lift can come the aerodynamic shape of the hull; it is a giant flying wing. This means that it is not a truly lighter than air vehicle like the dirigibles were, but a hybrid:
The aviation market has been seeking two innovations: the ability to stay airborne for days and weeks at a time in order to achieve surveillance, search and survey tasks; and the ability to transport heavy goods point-to-point, without the need for expensive airport infrastructure. The aerospace company that solves either of these problems with a safe, robust and reliable aircraft will dominate these markets. HAV has developed the Airlander range that can achieve this by engineering a design that involves gaining “free lift” from helium, whilst utilising the controllability of having an aerodynamic shape, and having engines that rotate and can direct their thrust in any direction.
It’s nickname, the flying bum, comes from the aerodynamic shape of the front end. I suspect that the Airlander people don’t like it very much but it sure fits.
The Airlander 10 can stay up for a very long time (up for 20 days without crew, 5 days with) and can carry relatively heavy loads, 22,050 pounds. That’s only a bit more than the Sikorsky Skycrane, the 1958 vintage helicopter that is still working around the world, and which is capable of lifting 20,000 pounds. However the Airlander 50 is on the drawing boards, and it will be able to carry 132,300 pounds or 66 tons. That will be something.