The airship enterprise

The image of airships as relics of a bygone age could well be on the way out. David Fowler reports on two firms which are developing rival craft, using today’s technology to eliminate the dangers and problems that plagued the sky monsters of the 1920s and

To most people, airships belong to a bygone era. The age of these monster cruise liners of the sky ended with the spectacular disasters that befell first the R101 and then the Hindenburg. But even without these tragedies, cheaper, faster competitors in the shape of passenger aeroplanes would have sealed their fate.

But now two companies, one in the UK and one in Germany, hope to usher in a new age of the airship as a modern form of transport for the 21st century. Germany’s Cargolifter has a flying prototype of a design it hopes will carry freight around the world. The UK’s Advanced Technology Group, which has been building small numbers of airships since the 1970s for customers such as the US Navy, recently took the first order for its latest creation, a craft which could enter service next year. Apart from having to use highly flammable hydrogen to provide lift, now solved by the availability of helium, the problems encountered by airships in the 1930s mostly boiled down to materials technology issues which have now been resolved. Gas bags, for example, were made of thousands of pig’s bladders and tended to leak, while the fragile fabric used for the airships’ outer covering was implicated in both the R101 and Hindenburg disasters.

With these problems out of the way, the companies argue, airships have numerous advantages. For a start, they can stay aloft for long periods with little fuel, making them ideal for surveillance purposes; and they can lose power without being at immediate risk of crashing.

While both companies believe in the future of the airship, they are taking strikingly different approaches in developing their new offerings. Cargolifter has identified a clear and painstakingly researched market niche. It intends to produce craft capable of carrying large and heavy machinery such as turbines, transformers or other ‘indivisible loads’ of up to 160 tonnes, which are difficult to transport by conventional means. The German company is working closely with potential customers to make sure that a market exists when its product is ready. On the other hand, ATG, led by chief executive and technical director Roger Munk, has concentrated on eliminating the technical obstacles to the use of airships – materials technology, manoeuvrability, and construction. The company believes this will open up a range of markets, starting with small passenger-carrying craft – it signed a firm order for the first SkyCat 15 in June – but has set its sights on the ultimate target of a 1,000-tonne capacity freight carrier, in which the US Department of Defense has expressed interest.

And although Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin might well have recognised Cargolifter’s cigar-shaped craft as a descendant of his own, he may have looked askance at the radically different SkyCat.

That’ll be the day – see Archive p4