Phoenix Rises – Return of the Airship
By Long Branch Mike, www.londonreconnections.com
Photo Credit: Hybrid Air Vehicles
Spy balloons over the US and Canada, with some being shot down, have been a major news story in recent months. But what is not in the mainstream news is the spotting of what appears to be the world’s largest airship hangar in China – with an airship taxiing.
The purpose of such a dirigible is open to speculation, although it is important to note that China is the fourth largest country in the world (slightly smaller than Canada), with large mountain ranges and remote regions bereft of surface communications. Obviously, any airship could equally be used for military surveillance, early warning, and/or logistics. Little has publicly been made available, although a China observer has found information on some of their aerostats (tethered or stationary airships).
Herein we take another look to the skies, this time to the modern reincarnations of airships. A number of companies worldwide are spending hundreds of millions reinventing dirigibles with modern materials and technologies, to make them larger, safer, more manoeuvrable, and capable of landing in unprepared areas.
The solution for the future of remote transportation could lie in an older technology that is gaining renewed interest. In the inter-war years, large airships carried dozens of passengers at 80 miles per hour, crossing the Atlantic on regularly scheduled flights. Investment in airships was curtailed by the rapid development of airplane technology during World War 2. With cheap oil after the war, everyone wanted to go fast, and airplanes had an acceptable safety record.
With numerous recent innovations in structure, shape, and ballasting, we are now seeing a number of rigid, semi-rigid, and non-rigid airship prototypes being designed, tested, and flown. With new technologies and advances in composite materials, sophisticated flight controls, solar panels, and electric motors, modern airships will be safer and more manoeuvrable. As well as requiring far fewer ground crew than their previous generation cousins. The race is now on to complete and flight test passenger and transport airships.
This writer attended the Aviation Innovations Airship Conference on October 21-22, 2022 in Toronto, Canada to find out the lay of the land, as it were. Why was it held in Toronto? Canada is a vast country, second largest in the world, with many mineral mines and remote communities in its northern territories. So many mines, that the world hub for mining company headquarters is in Toronto. And there are a number of provinces, territories, and companies in Canada that are seeking a cheaper, more sustainable way to transport freight and passengers to and from remote northern regions.
A number of other countries also believe there is an opportunity and a market for lighter than air vehicles to transport freight, people, and emergency assistance to sparsely settled regions with minimal infrastructure.
Aviation’s pollution problem
Aviation is one of the last transport sectors exclusively using fossil fuels. As a result, aeroplanes are the most polluting form of passenger and freight transport. Aeroplane weight and space are critical factors, which have made the use of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells unfeasible to date.
Large capacity electric cargo and passenger commercial aeroplanes are still at least a decade away. Unfortunately, much of the aviation industry’s work to reduce its Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are public relations efforts with questionable and misleading carbon credits. Climate change is becoming an increasing concern, and the aviation industry is increasingly coming under the spotlight for its highly refined fuel use. Modern airships provide an alternative.
We have previously looked at the Imperial Airship Service, Britain’s 1920s plan to communicate with its Commonwealth around the globe much quicker than steamship. This scheme did produce a cross-Atlantic flight of the R.100, but the Service was cancelled when it’s sister ship R.101 crashed and burnt in France with only six survivors the following year.
However, flammable hydrogen lifting gas was not the only Achilles heel of first-generation airships. Even the US Navy, which flew the only helium-filled airships of the period, had its share of airship disasters. Flying into separate storms, the airships USS Macon and USS Akron crashed with large losses of life. This spelt the end of the US rigid airship program, although they continued with non-rigid surveillance blimps for a few decades.
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