13 April 2022
Lighter Than Air: Not Your Average Blimp
In 2021, a 95-year-old woman was fatally injured by a falling tree branch while sitting peacefully on a bench outside her home in South Carolina. She had been a conservationist, philanthropist and noted world traveler. As a young girl, she and her mother had boarded an airship for a trans-Atlantic crossing from Europe back to the United States. That airship was destroyed upon landing. Anne Springs Close was the last living survivor of the Hindenburg.
Sometimes, a decades-old idea was good, but the technology of the time failed to bring the concept’s full potential to fruition. The Hindenburg, which may have had conceptual merit, was not merely a failure, it was an outright disaster. But now, with the Airlander 10 — a craft that is so much more than a blimp — set to take to the skies, the advances of modern design and technology, combined, have produced a safe multi-purpose craft like no other.
The advances of modern design and technology, combined, have produced a safe multi-purpose craft like no other.
The engineers and CAD designers must have had fun with this project. Why? Well, imagine an aircraft larger than anything you’ve ever seen. At over 300 feet long, almost 112 feet wide and over 85 feet tall — which is roughly the height of a six-story building — you’d be forgiven for wondering what size jet engines would get this behemoth bird off the ground and keep it airborne. The truth is that there are no jet engines at all. This craft is literally lighter than air.
Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane?
Unlike your average blimp, this helium-balloon-on-steroids can carry ten tons of cargo and remain airborne for about five days with a potential range of 4,000 nautical miles, which is roughly 4,600 miles. And it does all that with a much lower carbon footprint than other types of air transport. In fact, it produces about 75% fewer emissions.
It has a maximum cruising altitude of 20,000 feet, and the aircraft can be configured for various purposes, such as passenger and cargo transport as well as communications and surveillance. That’s one versatile helium balloon.
A New Breed of Blimp
It's called the Airlander 10 and having overcome a somewhat rocky start, the manufacturer, UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles, is scheduled to have ships rolling off the production line, certified for commercial use by 2025. They’ve already established a basis for certification with European aviation authorities.
If you have concerns about another Hindenburg-style accident, rest assured that the Airlander 10 is not filled with flammable hydrogen as the Hindenburg was. No, the Airlander gains its buoyancy from the non-flammable helium that fills most of its cavernous interior.
The combination of heavy load lifting, lengthy hovering times, freedom from traditional airport infrastructure and low emissions are a powerful combination of selling points.
Over and above the helium, the airship also sports aerodynamic lift and vectored thrust from 4 engines which are especially useful for take-off and landing. About 60% of the Airlander’s lift comes from its helium-filled hull. The other 40% of its lift occurs due to the aerodynamics of its hull being wing-shaped. The 4 engines — two at each end of the hull — are 4-liter, turbocharged V8 diesel engines — each offering 325 horsepower — and they can be rotated upwards or downwards to facilitate take-off or landing. With speeds of up to 148 kilometers — or about 92 miles — per hour, the Airlander 10 can even outrun bad weather if it needs to.
Bird in a Cage
If you’re wondering about safety beyond the helium, here’s the scoop. Airlander 10’s hybrid design offers certain safety benefits over other aircraft. For example, it can fly perfectly using just one of its four engines. Even if all four were to fail, which is highly unlikely, the craft would still be capable of gliding and floating. The airship can take off or land in winds of up to 35 knots — which is about 40 miles or 65 kilometers per hour. It’ll feature radar to avoid extreme weather, but just in case, the hull is protected by a built-in copper Faraday cage, so lightning strikes can give it their best shot, but no cigar.
The “cabin” runs down the middle of the Airlander’s underside, with compartments for passengers, cargo, fuel tanks and communication modules — through which Airlander 10 might, one day, be able to be flown remotely — while the 2-seater cockpit features floor-to-ceiling windows for excellent visibility.
The combination of heavy load lifting, lengthy loitering or hovering times, freedom from traditional airport infrastructure and low emissions are a powerful combination of selling points.
This odd-looking craft, affectionately known as “the flying bum” due to its shape, could very well be the answer to the anticipated explosion in demand for air cargo service in the next couple of years.
Anywhere the Wind Blows . . .
As if the features we’ve already mentioned weren’t enough to impress, another exceptionally cool fact is that the Airlander 10 can also land on almost any flat surface. Because it’s outfitted with massive inflatable pneumatic skids, the Airlander 10 can put down on grass, water, ice or snow. The skids have no internal structure. They’re simply large inflatable tubes with their underside covered in an abrasion-resistant reinforced material, which can be replaced as easily as resoling a shoe. We can’t think of another vehicle that combines all these qualities. Can you?
The 4 engines can be rotated upwards or downwards to facilitate take-off or landing.
In the age of instant gratification, sometimes we need a reminder that not everything has to happen at the speed of light. Perhaps Airlander 10 will be the embodiment of that sentiment: the earth-friendly, configurable lighter-than-air blimp that can do the heavy lifting.
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