Everyone has seen period footage of the Zeppelin disaster, and they don't need to think too much to understand why they fled the skies after a series of disastrous accidents.
Today, safer technology could be the key to the return of airships to our skies. Meanwhile we will see them from January, with all their load of suggestions, in the series "These dark materials" taken from the trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman. In the parallel universe described by the series, the giant airships transport mail, soldiers in battle and explorers in the Arctic: from different London stations, the airships depart at every hour as local trains.
A parallel reality (for this and other reasons) rather distant from ours. But we will see why we cannot say the use of airships in "these obscure matters" is imaginative.
The reality of our airships is different
In “this” universe you can find a couple of small promotional airships around the United States, another one that brings some tourists to the German countryside and stop. Building an airship isn't that profitable yet.
In a few years, things could change, however. A completely new class of modern airships is on the way. In 2024, one of the first, new models of Airlander airships could fly over the North Pole, and would be the first in 96 years. On board, tourists from € 80000 per trip instead of explorers: if you want to spend, Tickets are already on sale.
The Airlander won't be the only one to sail the skies. Also within 4 to 5 years, an airship longer than an Airbus and as tall as a 12-story building should take off from Jingmen, China. His task will be to lift heavy loads in difficult places. Its manufacturers have many expectations about this modern transport airship project: they plan about 150 of these airships within 10 years.
Let's take a step back
In the history books, the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 it marked the end of the brief and glorious era of the airship. In fact, the US Navy continued to use airships for anti-submarine warfare during World War II. The American Blimp Corporation has produced airships for advertising. Even the historic Zeppelin in Germany built new, larger and more technologically advanced airships, in an obviously very difficult sector.
The problem with the modern airship for investors and potential customers was that it still presented high costs and risks.
It didn't work very well. The companies managed to sell a few airships, there was demand for large models but development costs discouraged production. Today there is a determination to do things differently, at any cost.
The Airlander is the creation of Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a company founded in 2007 by the pioneer of the British airship Roger Munk. HAV's new technology center is located in a vibrant industrial estate on the outskirts of Bedford, an hour north of London, set amidst a landscape of huge new warehouses and residential complexes.
Inside the technology center is the cargo module of the Airlander prototype, still full of electronic equipment banks from its final test flight. Next to it is a full-size model of a passenger cabin for a flight to the North Pole.
The cabins will be fully set up. There are full-height windows along both sides and even behind the cockpit. The prototype also includes a glass floor and a large oval leather sofa that appears to float in the void. This is for affluent passengers to sit on while sipping cocktails made behind the glass-topped bar.
The Airlander's “hybrid” design allows it to fly faster and carry more cargo than ever before. It does not need a large ground crew, or moorings, or a hangar. A nice solid structure, there is no risk of the gas leaking or making an airship floppy the whole aircraft.
The airship was initially developed for the US military. When the program was canceled in 2013, it was brought back to the UK, converted for civilian use and named Airlander 10. It was finally withdrawn in January 2019 after seven test flights.
"Our flights have shown the outside world that the Airlander is real"Says Nick Allman, chief operating officer of HAV. "Until then, the risk was that people would look at it and think it was just a fictional product."
There is a "niche" that could become profitable and justify the commercial return of airships for passenger transport. It is a type of customer who would gladly take a little more time and money to get to their destination, but with few emissions.
The "modern" airships produce less pollution than a conventional aircraft: HAV has received funds from the government for over 1 million euros to completely eliminate it with an electric propulsion system.
Despite its huge size, the Airlander 10 is still relatively small. Customers who would need to use the Airlander to lift heavy loads will prefer the larger, pre-designed Airlander 50. Yet it is precisely this market that rivals think is the best opportunity for the airship.
Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, once famous for the Blackbird U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, may soon be famous for something else: airships. The American aerospace giant's hybrid airship program is planned there.
Launched at the Paris Air Show in 2015, LMH-1 is similar in size and shape to the Airlander. Like its British rivals, Lockheed initially built a virtual demo to showcase the concept, but - unlike HAV - they are still in the early stages of prototype development. Perhaps the airship designs of "these dark materials" are ahead of them. When Lockheed has received double-digit orders for his airship, they will open their beautiful factory.
"Demand is created when customers have unmet needs ", says Robert Boyd, Lockheed's program manager. "We have identified the need for a safe and sustainable solution capable of delivering heavy loads and personnel to remote communities that do not have any infrastructure. "
“Airships can carry out numerous missions ranging from humanitarian aid to natural resource extraction to heavy load operations. It is also possible that once airships enter the market, other uses may be discovered. In this case, the sky is not the limit. "
The flying whale
The airship in the shape of a blue whale is known by the (unattractive) name of LCA60T. It is the creation of the well-funded and ambitious Paris-based start-up Flying Whales, founded by Sébastien Bougon. Flying Whales has an impressive list of shareholders that includes the governments of France, China and Quebec. 25% of the business is owned by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co Ltd (Caiga), which has a reputation for aggressively pursuing new technologies.
Flying Whales wants to do things differently. It raised over 320 million euros to produce the airship in Bordeaux, France, near Montreal, Canada and Jingmen, China. Most importantly, it signed a memorandum of understanding with a major international airport operator to build 150 airship bases around the world.
"We have analyzed many of the old airship designs so that we can learn from them", he claims Michèle Renaud, Head of Flying Whales operations. "We wanted to carry 60 tons of payload and have a powerful propulsion system, and you need something strong to do that."
“We will have our own operating company because there are many times when someone will need an airship. For example in a humanitarian disaster situation but it will need further technical support from people who know how to handle it. "
There was always an element of truth even in Pullman's alternative Oxford seen in "These Dark Matters". Now his fantasy could come true.
There is an old photograph from 1913 of a ground airship at University Parks, Oxford, surrounded by curious onlookers. In 1930, the huge British airship R100 hovered over the center of Oxford and brought the city to a halt. In 2007, a local contractor proposed a commercial airship service that could link Oxford to Cambridge in an hour.
The world was not ready for Stewart's low-carbon vision in 2007, nor for the parallel worlds of (Did I mention that?) "These Dark Matters."