A company called Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) just took a big step to reintroducing blimps into practical service. Long known by the general public as little more than advertising vehicles, airships largely fell out of use after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, but the advantages blimps have may make them common sights once again.
HAV’s Airlander 10 made its first flight from Cardington Airfield, north of London, a short 19-minute hop to answer some basic “will it fly” questions before moving on to more advanced testing. The flight went well, according to the company.
The Airlander started off in 2010 as a joint development between HAV and U.S. defense behemoth Northrop Grumman. The U.S. military, entrenched in two low-level conflicts, wanted an aircraft capable of keeping big cameras aloft for days or weeks at a time. Unmanned air vehicles and converted (crewed) civilian airplanes are normally used for such intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) work, but they come with inherent restrictions: they’re severely limited in payload capacity and flight duration, they’re expensive, and require long runways and other expensive infrastructure to operate. The military already used tethered blimp-like balloons to carry radars and cameras aloft, but without engines or control surfaces they couldn’t move around, so they couldn’t see very far from their bases. But a big, mobile blimp could carry the heaviest cameras, fly wherever needed, and stay aloft for days at a time using very little fuel—and because the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents didn’t have much in the way of surface-to-air weaponry, there wouldn’t be much they could do to stop it. The HAV/Northrop team beat Lockheed to win a design-and-build award, and the result, the HAV 304, flew in 2012. But the program was quickly canceled, and Northrop withdrew in search of more lucrative opportunities. HAV brought the 304 back to Cardington and rebuilt it into a civilian project: the Airlander.
The civilian world could use some of the advantages blimps bring to the table. For one thing, there isn’t much capacity in the civilian world for heavy lifting. Logging and mining companies, for example, often need to haul large loads from remote places, and an airship could haul more than the trucks and helicopters currently used, cost less to operate, and require little in the way of infrastructure.
But no matter how much financial sense it makes, one of the big hurdles will be getting the aviation industry and public over just how weird this thing is. The first things most people think of when they see a blimp is the infamous Hindenburg disaster, a passenger airship that killed 36 when the flammable hydrogen gas it used for buoyancy caught fire. The Hindenburg accident effectively ended the era of airships, and heavier-than-air aircraft quickly dominated the long-distance travel market. Replacing hydrogen gas with inert helium gas effectively guaranteed such a mishap couldn’t happen again, but public opinion trumps all business sense, and dirigibles were cast into the background, limited mainly to the Goodyear Blimps and the like we often see cruising around today. Nor is the aviation industry quite ready for the return of lighter-than-air craft: though airships are mostly fine with just plenty of open space and a hefty tie-down pole, one requiring maintenance can’t just be rolled into any old hangar, nor do many airports have massive reservoirs of helium in easy reach (the Airlander 10 needs more than a million square feet of helium gas).
HAV’s Airlander 10 is the first tangible step in many years to reintroducing airships. Already they have a far larger version, the Airlander 50, on the drawing board. In even the most optimistic scenarios it will be some time before Airlander 10 enters service, but one day soon you might just look up and see one cruising quietly past. It’ll be hard to miss.
UPDATE (8/24/16): The Airlander made a hard landing at the end of its second flight, as it touched down at Cardington Airfield. Though the crew compartment was damaged in the accident, HAV says the crew is uninjured and safe. Amateur footage of the crash, posted on Youtube, appears to show that the craft descended too fast or at the wrong angle. Such minor accidents are not uncommon in test flight programs, especially for an aircraft so unique as the Airlander. HAV is evaluating damage to the airship, and assuming the company's finances remain in good standing, the accident is likely to slow down but not halt the program.