Airlander 10: is this the dawning of a new age of the airship?

Have Helium ships returned?

The Airlander 10 is a helium-filled craft aiming to kickstart a new age of the airship. The creators of the world’s largest aircraft say that 100 ships could be in flying in the next five years.

Above a field in rural Bedfordshire, a shiny, futuristic craft the size of a football pitch took it’s first flight. It ascends majestically into the evening sky, and gaping onlookers crane their necks for a better view. The size of the ship is reminiscent of one of those alien movies where the huge ship hovers over the city or countryside.

The Airlander is quite a sight. The initial flight had a few delays, but Wednesday’s takeoff was held up for hours but once in the air, it strutted it curves as it banks and soars for the audience below.

At 92m long and 43.5m wide, this is the worlds largest aircraft, dwarfing heavyweights such as the Airbus A380 superjumbo. It is a bit cheaper, too, with a catalogue price of 25m, compared with $375m (287m) for an A380.

It can also carry a 10-tonne payload, comparable with military transport helicopters such as the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, the US Air Forces workhorse of choice.

The People gather at Cardington airfield, Bedfordshire, to watch the spectacle. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The deep pockets of the worlds biggest military power were pivotal in getting the Airlander off the ground. You might ask why the US Air Force dumped 300 million dollars into the project. Perhaps it pictured a battlefield surveillance mothership capable of unmanned floating/flight above conflict zones for three weeks at a time . But when the US government slashed military budgets in 2013, the Airlander was among the casualties.

We don’t call them balloons, but Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAVs). That’s perhaps the modern way of dirigible or zeppelin. Since then HAV has raised money through several rounds of crowdfunding, and input from private investors. These include Peter Hambro, the mining magnate and scion of the Hambro banking dynasty, and Bruce Dickinson, the frontman of the heavy metal group Iron Maiden and a keen pilot.

HAVs chief executive, Stephen McGlennan, has his eye on a stock market listing toward the end of this year to raise up to 30m. He believes there could be 100 of the airships in the skies within five years and says there is latent demand for around 1,000. Potential uses include tourist pleasure cruises, cargo transport and disaster relief.

Since the famouse Hidenburg disaster ( the world has been leary of this type of travel. The Airlander is already attracting interest from military powers willing to spend where the US was not. McGleen predicts that almost half of the initial investments will be from the military.

The Airlander can stay up for weeks at a time, monitoring activity such as insurgents planting explosives. The craft may not be very subtle, but that’s the point. Their presence is obvious, i.e. you want them to see it, says McGlennan. When the enemy sees the dirigible there, it knows you are in the area and cut put the fear of your airforce/army into their minds and hearts. It can be used to help keep the ground troops safe.

Believe it or not, it doesn’t pop or exploded when shot at. It can fly out of reach of all but specialised ground-to-air weaponry, so militants taking pot shots shouldnt pose muuch of a problem. Unsurprisingly, references to airship disasters such as Hindenburg are strictly taboo at HAV. There is, however, no denying the historical link to a lesser-known tragedy. The cavernous hangars where the Airlander rests between flights once housed the ill-fated R101. At the time the worlds largest aircraft, the R101 crashed on 5 October 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people on board along with any chance of a viable British airship industry.

The Airlander is immeasurably safer. It uses helium, an inert gas, rather than the hydrogen used by the R101 and the Hindenburg. Its hull is made from three layers of fabric, including Vectran, a material five times stronger than steel. HAV claims it can fly in high winds of up to 80 knots, the highest level on the Beaufort wind scale. It has a top speed of 100mph.

So keep your eyes up, and you may see one in your area in the next few years.

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