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02 December 2021

Opinion from Adrian Leopard & Co

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Airships coming back as a serious mode of transport? Are you joking?
Adrian Leopard 393

Airships coming back as a serious mode of transport? Are you joking?

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May be “new norm” won’t be all bad! Definitely aviation with a twist

When the word “airship” is used, no doubt it conjures up in our minds that dreadful accident in 1937 in New Jersey when the Hindenberg caught fire. It was probably the most famous aviation disaster ever caught on camera and basically brought about the end of airships as a realistic form of transport. Airships, also known as “blimps” have continued to exist but are a relative rarity.

However, times change and the airship is now seen as a serious possibility for luxury tourist transport. What is more is that they are seen as potentially the most eco-friendly of units in aviation! In addition it is anticipated that they can be used for freight too.

What have we got then? Well the main problem with the Hindenberg was the fact that its buoyancy bags were filled with hydrogen. This of course was always an accident waiting to happen as hydrogen is a most inflammable gas. Hydrogen is number 1 in the atomic table and helium is number 2 which makes it the second lightest and second most abundant element, second only to hydrogen. Helium is formed by the fusion of hydrogen atoms in stars and the great thing about it is that it is non-flammable. Accordingly it is ideal for airships because it is so light and therefore enables them to have a high payload. And it can hover in the air like a helicopter. And how much energy does that all require? None!

Because of its low weight, it requires very little energy to propel it as well so therefore has an extremely low fuel burn and now being developed with hybrid electric engines, they produce something like 90% less CO2. They expect to be all-electric by 2030, thereby offering a zero-emissions flight.

Another advantage of the airship is that it requires no runway or other infrastructure and can land more or less anywhere so this makes it a vehicle which can gain access to otherwise completely inaccessible locations and some governments, like Canada for example, see a considerable application in getting to some of its remote areas. In fact they are designed to float as well so can land on water! Mind you, overnight mooring can be a problem if the wind starts to blow.

It is expected that this form of transport will be particularly appropriate for the luxury tourist market. The ability to go more or less where you want in noiseless comfort sounds very attractive.

A French company, Flying Whales, has developed a ship with a 60 ton carrying capacity and their 505 ft long airship will have a range of 621 miles. Of course they will not have the speed of a modern airliner, anything like, but there has to be some trade off for zero-emissions flight! The airship is not a very controllable unit and is highly susceptible to wind speed and direction.

And one of the great things about flying is that it is possible to avoid traffic jams and subject to air traffic you can fly in a straight line to your destination. Of course skies filled with airships may well flex the mind of air traffic controllers somewhat but perhaps in that world there would be less standard aviation anyway. There is already a requirement for a pilot’s licence just like there is for an air balloon or indeed aeroplane.

And what if a couple do collide in mid-air? Perhaps it will be a bit like going on the dodgems as they just bounce apart.

I suppose in extremis someone could live in one these. Eccentric? I’ll say so!

Here are the web sites for a couple of companies engaged in the development of the blimp – they make interesting reading.

https://www.airliquide.com/magazine/energy-transition/flying-whales-new-take-airship

https://www.hybridairvehicles.com/

How long it will take for public flights to become a serious reality is not certain but in a world where we have to find alternatives, perhaps the revitalisation of this old technology may be a very valuable way forward.

Perhaps one day, families won’t have motor cars any longer, just the family blimp to go shopping in. After all there is a lot more space up there than there is down here!

Adrian Leopard 29-01-21

Photo Kit Suman

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