Airships are not a blimp on the horizon

For three-quarters of a century the airship has been banished to the book of engineering embarrassments. But give it a chance, says David Windle, and the zeppelin could be a high-flier.

‘Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.’ So spoke Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, in the late 1800s. I love those quotes because they demonstrate that even someone as brilliant as the learned lord can get things spectacularly wrong when not recognising an idea whose time has come.

Timing isn’t just the secret of great comedy, it’s the key to success in engineering too. No matter how great the idea, if it comes along at the wrong time it’s doomed. In the normal run of things, inventions have their glory days and then quietly fade away as something better takes their place. But what about ideas that are so far ahead of their time that the science and engineering of the day can’t quite do them justice?

The lucky ones are placed on the back-burner to be re-considered when the enabling technologies are sufficiently mature. Either that or they’re tested in secret so that only those in the loop know how things went. The not-so-lucky ones emerge into the glare of media and public scrutiny, not quite ready. The fact that they work at all is testimony to the brilliance and farsightedness of the engineers and their financial backers.

Dozens, if not hundreds of inventions, fall into this category. I’d like to hear about them, and maybe we can give a good old idea its fair chance at greatness. To get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a form of transport from the past that’s begging to be given a 21st-century makeover. Lightweight composite materials, computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis and computerised flight control systems are just some of the technologies that can make the airship a serious contender in the future air transport infrastructure.

Add automated ground handling, lightweight powerplants and satellite navigation/weather information systems and the case for a serious look at large airships becomes very strong. But the real deal clincher is the need for a cost-effective, quiet, environmentally friendly form of air transport that can operate without long runways or noisy airports.

It’s impossible to argue against the airship without resorting to tired clichés and problems the lighter-than-air designers and aircrew encountered 70 or 80 years ago when, against all the odds, they showed that regular non-stop intercontinental air travel was not only possible, it was positively luxurious.

During the few decades that the large, rigid airships were around, they performed better than they had any right to. Calculating the loads and stresses acting on a structure made up of miles of girders would be daunting today. In the early 20th century, armed only with slide rules and so on, it was a Herculean labour. Yet it was achieved.

The most remarkable airship ever built was the Graf Zeppelin. It travelled more than one million miles before Hitler had it (and the Graf Zeppelin II) scrapped following the Hindenburg disaster. Let’s not forget that it flew around a quarter of a million miles before it burned in New Jersey, in 1937. Nor should we overlook the fact that of the 96 passengers and crew on-board, only 36 died. However you look at the demise of the Hindenburg, one thing’s certain: it sealed the fate of the large passenger airship. It was born a century before its time, because the technologies needed simply weren’t around. Those technologies are here today – and a new generation of helium-inflated airships and hybrid airships is being developed.

One player in this field is Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and its chairman and founder is Roger Munk, who put airships back on to the world’s agenda in the 1970s with his small, highly advanced airships. Based in Cardington, Bedfordshire, ATG is developing a range of airships from a small advertising blimp, the A-10, to a 600ft long, solar-powered, high-altitude communications hub called StratSat.

The firm is also working on an entirely new form of transport: the SkyCat. Part lifting body aircraft, part airship, part hovercraft, the SkyCat is scaleable from 20 up to 1,000 tonnes and promises to revolutionise air transport – if it’s given the chance.

Although some will disagree, I don’t believe the airship and aircraft were ever bitter rivals. Right from the start they were complementary. There’s no doubt that for fast, low-cost passenger air travel, the aircraft will take some beating. But for heavy, point-to-point transport, or long-endurance flight, the airship could be a much quieter – and cost-effective – solution for both civil and military applications.

Let’s face it: with the military, security services and accountants now taking airships seriously, it’s a safe bet they’re not overcome by waves of nostalgia or a yearning for retro-chic. No one in their right mind would compare an aircraft of the 1920s or 1930s with a modern jet. So let’s put the handful of airship crashes of the early 20th century into the same mental box as the many heavier-than-air aviation disasters – and look forward to an idea whose time has come.

David Windle is a freelance technology and aerospace writer.