Zeppelin Renaissance

Science & Technology — POSTED BY Brainwaving Admin on April 11, 2011 at 10:42 pm

When the Hindenburg blew up in 1937, so did the airship industry. So why is Britain building a fleet of the world’s biggest, for the Americans, in our old Zeppelin sheds?

2015: Regent’s Park International Airport

A line of limousines and taxis snakes its way into the Royal Park to deliver 300 well-heeled passengers and their smart luggage to the discreet air terminal. They are in no rush because the flight they are about to board to New York will take two days.

Moored on the grass outside the terminal is a 600ft long behemoth, a vast Hybrid Air Vehicle. A cross between a balloon and an aircraft wing, this new-wave blimp is filled with non-flammable helium and air. Slung beneath is a vast passenger cabin akin to a miniature first-class cruise ship with dining rooms, a ballroom, bars and a casino.

For the same price as a club-class plane ticket, these 300 discerning travellers will eat, sip cocktails and dance as they float serenely across the Atlantic.

There is no runway; there is no need. Once clearance is given for take-off, the captain disengages the hover cushions that suck the craft to the ground, directs the thrust of four 8,000hp engines down, and powers the ship up to 9,000ft.

In 48 hours they will touch down in New York harbour, having burned just a fifth of the fuel used by an aeroplane. It’s a stress-free hop from central London to the centre of Manhattan, with no lengthy airport connections at either end, and no icebergs either.

The doomed R101 in one of the hangersThe doomed R101 in one of the hangers

Airship travel has been a distant dream ever since a catastrophic fire in 1937 ripped through the  LZ-129 Hindenburg as it neared its mooring mast in New Jersey, killing thirty-five people on board and one man on the ground.

Reporter Herbert Morrison’s vivid eye-witness testimony would become the industry’s epitaph: ‘It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground… Oh the humanity!’

Could an industry dogged by tragedy and belonging to a bygone era finally have found the technology to cruise back into the mainstream?

The American Department of Defense thinks so. They have just handed a £315 million contract to design and build the world’s largest flying object to a small British company based in Bedfordshire. Having beaten aviation giants Lockheed Martin, Hybrid Air Vehicles have just four months to build the belly and bones of the craft – the payload module, the fuel tanks, the four engines, the propulsion ducts and bow thrusters (the prototype is pictured on the previous pages).

If all goes to plan these parts will leave its secure manufacturing facility in May, be loaded on a vast Antonov cargo plane, and flown to Arizona where they will join up with the ‘envelope’ (ie, the balloon).

Once assembly is complete, military technology giant Northrop Grumman will add the top-secret surveillance equipment and the vehicle will travel on its own power to a U.S. army base on the east coast of the United States. Once there the U.S. military will put the fully assembled 300ft long craft through its places, flying it with pilots and without.

When it finally completes testing and trials in January 2012, it will leave the US and fly back across the Atlantic to the UK, the first time this has happened since the heyday of Zeppelins in the Thirties.

Guided by a three-man crew, the giant ship will stay at a U.S. Army base here, ready to be deployed. It will be available for use in Afghanistan where it can be flown remotely, climbing to 20,000ft and circling for 21 days, an omniscient god perpetually surveying the battlefield and giving advance warnings of IED attacks and ambushes.

The Cardington airship hangars in BedfordshireThe Cardington airship hangars in Bedfordshire

A zeppelin in a war zone?

Testing has shown that bullets, even missiles pass directly through the envelope because of the incredibly low pressure. Reassuringly, the company insists it has come a long way from the technology of the Thirties.

The 60 per cent helium and 40 per cent air mix replaces flammable hydrogen. And where the classic cigar-shaped Zeppelins struggled against the wind, hybrids use it in combination with their aerodynamic shape  to get more lift. They are helped by vectored thrust, like a Harrier jet, which directs the engine output downwards to provide vertical lift and allows them to take off carrying heavy payloads, even in high winds. They also burn less fuel than a plane while hauling more cargo and, with hovercraft-style landing gear, they don’t require an airport. They can even touch down on water.

The vast 800ft-long Cardington Airship Hangars in Bedfordshire are an eerie sight, dominating the skyline for miles around. Here history looms large.

In 1916 about 800 people worked at Cardington for Shorts Brothers, producing their first airship in 1918. In hard times after the war, the station was closed and construction abandoned, reopening again in 1924 as part of the Imperial Airship Service.

It was in Cardington that the 777ft-long R101, the then biggest airship in the world, was built, and from here that it began its ill-fated final voyage at 6.24pm on Saturday October 4, 1930 bound for India; first planned stop Egypt.

R101 reached London by 8pm, crossed the Channel in two hours, and at midnight a final message went out: ‘15 miles SW of Abbeville speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees (West South West) 35 miles an hour. Altimeter height 1,500ft. Air temperature 51 Fahrenheit. Weather – intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar and having sighted the French coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily.’

Two hours later, R101 went into a steep dive, the nose hitting the ground at just 13.8mph. Then fire broke out, from which only eight of the 56 passengers and crew survived. Plans for more advanced and bigger airships were scrapped. After a brief resurgence during World War II when they made barrage balloons for the war effort, the Cardington sheds and the industry slid into decline.

Now, Cardington shed No 2 acts as a temporary home to Warner Brothers’ technicians. The cavernous space was just the job for a full-sized mock-up of Gotham  City for Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman series. The other largely derelict shed is out of bounds, a reminder of the industry’s capricious history.

How the new breed of Hybrid Air Vehicles would look over London's Olympic complexHow the new breed of Hybrid Air Vehicles would look over London’s Olympic complex

But just as cruise ships survived the Titanic disaster, so some enthusiasts never gave up hope for the airship. Among them was Roger Munk, the epitome of a charismatic British engineering visionary. The idea for the Hybrid Air Vehicle was his; he spent much of his  40-year career designing and building airships, completing a number of ‘lighter than air’ projects for the American military.

Yet his own work was haunted by the inherent danger of airships going up in flames. In 1995, a fire apparently caused accidentally during welding work set alight the Weeksville hangar in North Carolina. At half-a-mile long, it was the largest wood-construction building in the world. Supports for the 180-ton doors were being rebuilt when the fire took hold, burning the hangar to the ground and destroying his Sentinel 1000 blimp.

Munk refused to give up. He decided to begin a new project creating a vehicle that would solve some of the problems inherent in airships, especially ground handling and ballast issues. He based his 15-man team in portable huts in the shadow of the Cardington sheds, and went back to the drawing board.

With a small beer tent as a hangar, Munk created the concept of a hybrid. The first prototype was flown in 2000. Though Munk was able to oversee the final perfection of his vision, he died of a heart attack in February 2010 – before the team heard news that they had won the U.S. military contract.

The team now has 100 engineers and designers and the firm has ditched its draughty sheds for two brand new office buildings nearby. But if Hybrid Air Vehicles’ potential is taken up then the team hopes to begin manufacturing and storing the vehicles again in Cardington.

The 50ft long prototype itself seems otherworldly. Almost as wide as it is long, it is surprisingly balloon-like to the touch. Even the most cynical observer cannot disguise the thrill of childlike wonder on feeling just how light this huge craft is. The pressure inside it is just 0.1 psi – a car tyre is between 20 and 40 psi.

CEO Gary Elliott, the man largely responsible for putting together the Northrop Grumman deal, says: ‘We took existing technologies and the concept of an airship, took a step back and thought – why don’t we do this and this differently, so that it projects itself through the air?’

The Hybrid Air Vehicles' flight simulatorThe Hybrid Air Vehicles’ flight simulator

In a nearby office a team of flight-control specialists occupies a meeting room. In the corner of another office sits a full-size mock-up of the cockpit, constructed entirely from cardboard. The cabinetry is the work of the team’s 70-year-old handyman.

Pilots sit here and try out all possible instrumentation combinations to find the most practical configuration. Who needs  virtual reality when you have a few old computer boxes and some photocopied instruments?

A few footsteps away, though, there is a concession to technology – a large simulator which operates using four screens linked to four networked, high-end gaming PCs. Veteran airship pilots, recruited from across the industry, with experience flying blimps and seaplanes, are teaching the computers how to react to various flying situations, so that when a remote operator issues the ship with a command, the automated system will be able to move the controls in the same way as a human pilot; in other words, they are teaching it to fly itself.

The system has been designed by another UK company, Blue Bear Systems Research. It designed the flight-control system of the Harrier jump jet and also designs UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that can be launched and fly themselves autonomously along a pre-programmed route.

Although every Hybrid Air Vehicle (HAV) will be capable of being flown remotely as a military surveillance platform, it will also be able to operate with a three-man crew – a pilot, co-pilot and load master. It takes about 100 hours of flight training to convert a pilot, though they don’t all make the switch easily, often because they aren’t used to stopping in mid-air.

Dave Burns is a pilot with thousands of hours experience flying passenger airliners for BA and Monarch. He is the company’s test pilot and chief flight training officer, and also the man who will fly the HAV 304 back across the Atlantic.

‘It doesn’t respond like a plane at all,’ says Burns. ‘You move the stick, telling the ship to move, and nothing happens for three or four seconds – and then it responds, which can be a little disconcerting. Plus, the mass underneath it acts like a pendulum, always trying to make it come level again.

‘The difficult thing is landing and take-off. In the past airships had ropes and ground crew waiting; we don’t need those so now what you have to do is present the vehicle so it comes down very slowly.’

A German Graf Zeppelin visiting Britain in 1931A German Graf Zeppelin visiting Britain in 1931

Although the first 300ft version of the craft has been commissioned by the U.S. military, the real commercial potential of the vehicles could be for heavy lifting, says director of sales Gordon Taylor who has been living and breathing the things through multiple prototypes since joining his friend Roger Munk in 1997.

‘Our hybrids are based on a blend of technologies, in the same way that a Toyota Prius is a hybrid because it runs on electricity and petrol,’ he says.

‘Firstly it uses aerodynamics. The shape is like a big wing – air moves over it, lower air pressure is created across the top of the wing and it creates lift. Only if it’s fully loaded does it need a runway, and even then, with a 20 knot headwind they can land in three hull lengths.

‘Secondly we use “lighter-than-air” technology. With a normal airship you moor it on the ground to a mast. In order to fly anywhere it has to take off ballast, then it floats up. In a hybrid we push ourselves forward and that immediately generates lift.

‘Thirdly we have vectored thrust: our propulsion ducts rotate like a jump jet. Finally, we have hovercraft-style landing gear – a cushion of air that means that you can land on any reasonably flat surface, including water. This also works in reverse to secure the vehicle to the ground by suction.’

The company has calculated that it would take only 20 minutes to move a shipping container from Milton Keynes to London by HAV – a journey that presently takes hours thanks to traffic. Add a road network that grinds to a halt after a seasonal dusting of snow and you suddenly find an application for a cheaper, faster form of transport.

The Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 which marked the end of the era of passenger-carrying airshipsThe Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 which marked the end of the era of passenger-carrying airships

‘You can forget ice road truckers too in places with more extreme cold,’ he adds.

‘They can carry the same load that goes on the back of those trucks and they love the cold because you get more lift in the denser air. We have a version with a 20-ton payload, which is what a Lockheed C-130 Hercules carries. We have plans for craft to eventually carry up to 1,000 tons.’

The team is already in formal discussions with oil companies that routinely spend hundreds of millions of dollars on roads and airports every time they find a new supply of oil or gas. By using HAVs the oil companies would simply be able to touch down without need of an airport.

‘Some of these companies are paying a million dollars a day in the development of infrastructure.

‘You could run these hybrids in convoy too, of course. The price difference between air freight and shipping is huge – so what if you could move freight by air but for a similar price as a ship? It could mean a whole new market in transport.’

Later this year the full-scale version of the current prototype will become the largest flying object in the world. After its initial use in military surveillance and heavy lifting, it could be just a few years before passengers are floating around beneath them. Need to be in New York fast? Take a plane. Don’t mind being in New York a day later? Then take an HAV.

And precisely how long will it take after that  for us to see a fleet of orange easyBalloons hauling budget passengers to and from Malaga?

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    1 Comment

  • Arthur Robey says:

    I am passionate about Airships.
    We took a wrong turn in 1945 at the Chicago Convention where, because the USA with it’s huge wartime aviation industry forced vassal states to accept heavier than air aircraft. Because that is all the USA knew how to build.
    Wrong because we will soon not be able to fly because of the scarcity of kerosene.

    Airships are intrinsically safer than aeroplanes which fall out of the sky with regular, lethal monotony.

    I wish that the author could drop the cliches.
    Does on dwell on the twin Jumbo Jet smash in Tenerife every single time one discusses a Jumbo Jet?

    Then why harp on about “Oh, the Humanity.” when 75% of the passengers and crew walked away from the Hindenburg? Try that in a Jumbo smash.

    What about the time the fabric on a Zepplin empenage began to rip? The crew crawled out onto the tailplane and sewed it back up.

    Try doing that on a Jumbo jet.

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