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Airships, flying bums and floating whales

Just a lot of hot air?

After a series of crashes and other setbacks, airships lost the race against conventional airplanes. It has long been accepted that airplanes are the faster and more reliable of the two. Airplanes have been the obvious choice when it comes to transporting cargo too, but technological advances may now be key in the airship’s comeback as a cargo transporter, even if they’re being used in a different way. We took a look at two especially promising projects that are attracting quite a lot of attention.

A disappointing crash for an ambitious project

Two airship projects are currently creating quite a stir—the English Airlander and the French Flying Whale—but attempts to transport heavy, out-of-gauge cargo by airship actually date back to the late 1990s. The German company Cargolifter invested heavily in developing its eponymous airship which, with a length of 260 meters and a cargo capacity of up to 160 tons, looked much more imposing than its modern equivalents. The potential to ship land transports more quickly and cheaply piqued the interest of around 70,000 small shareholders and numerous investors. Unfortunately, significant unanticipated costs and overly ambitious schedules proved fatal, leaving the company insolvent by 2002, with the load-bearing zeppelin never advancing beyond the conceptual stage.

A successor emerges from a Parisian suburb

A French company from the small town of Colombes has a new and promising design that is currently getting it a lot of attention. Under the project name Flying Whales, the promise of airships is finally likely to be realized. Of significantly smaller dimensions than the Cargolifter design, the 150-meter-long “flying whale” is meant to “float” its cargo, weighing up to 60 tons, to its final destination. To give you an even better idea: This theoretically smaller “whale Zeppelin” is just as long as an A380 jet and just as tall as a 12-floor building!

Another key difference that suggests this project will achieve the success that has eluded its predecessors is the financial investment from the governments of France, China and Morocco. This backing will see the heavy, load-bearing airship concept through to market-maturity, and the plans are ambitious: 

In October 2022, an agreement was reached with the municipality of Laruscade to set up a plant with 200 to 300 skilled workers. The test phase of the airship called “LCA60T” is scheduled to start in 2024 with the first flight. Certification and the actual start of operations are planned for 2027. The area of ​​application is very clear: transporting heavy goods to areas that are difficult to access in a cost-effective manner. Two companies are already interested: the French state space agency CNES would like to use the airship for material transport in French Guiana in the future. “Latitude” also wants to use the “flying whale” to transport its commercial Zéphyr rocket at its Saxavord Spaceport on Shetland Islands.

Wind turbines, houses or even whole utility poles

From removing timber from impassable forested areas to transporting utility poles, whole houses or wind turbines, there is a wide range of potential uses thanks to the Flying Whale’s construction and operating principle: Cargo is stored in the cargo hold, which measures 75 meters long and 8 meters high, or simply hooked onto the craft’s underside by crane. This means that the Flying Whale does not have to touch the ground to load or unload cargo; therefore, no runway or landing pad is necessary. Cargo is instead hoisted and delivered using a crane system. Given favorable conditions, it can hover over a fixed point for hours at a time. This is made possible through a solid internal scaffolding which resembles that of the historical Zeppelin.

With speeds of up to 100 km/h and requiring significantly less energy than a comparable cargo helicopter, such as the CH-47 Chinook, CH-53 Sea Stallion, or Mil Mi-26, the French airship is an environmentally responsible, but also economical, alternative. Operating costs are estimated to be just one-twentieth of the costs of operating a cargo helicopter. Graphene-based ultracapacitors and electrochemical energy storage ensure that the electric propellers’ batteries are recharged more quickly than in typical models. The Flying Whale has a theoretical range of 1,000 km, though in practice its suggested operating range is just 100 km.

Military background and a different design

It has been some time now since the Airlander 10, produced by the company Hybrid Air Vehicles, first took to the skies. Up until the Flying Whale’s first flight, the English Airlander held the record as the world’s longest aircraft. HAV developed a prototype in 2010 while working as a subcontractor on a US-based project, “Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle” (LEMV), which was financed by the US Department of Defense to the tune of 60 million dollars. The hybrid airship was intended to engage in communications, reconnaissance, and surveillance activities, and provide an unmanned and lower-cost alternative to ground deployment in Afghanistan. The US military abandoned the project after the prototype’s maiden flight in August 2012, but HAV stuck with it, and continued to develop the concept.

The greatest contrast to the Flying Whale’s rigid construction is the Airlander’s alternative structure, which has no solid interior framework. Inflated like a balloon, hybrid airships combine the advantages of airships and airplanes. Operating them is easier, as the airship form allows for more lift, and they require fewer ground crew and no mooring masts. The lifting body’s unorthodox form is what gives it the somewhat charming moniker “Flying Bum.”

There are some disadvantages, though, in spite of its better flight performance: In contrast to conventional airships, hybrid airships are not able to hover in one place, which would allow them to deposit cargo from the air to a specified location with pinpoint accuracy. A runway or landing pad is generally required.

The world’s largest airship shriveled into a limp hull

A test flight of the prototype in 2017 resulted in an accident that attracted negative attention. Pictures of the “world’s slowest crash” were seen around the world, with the once bulging airship reduced to nothing more than a limp hull lying on the ground. Luckily no one was hurt, and after the maiden flight in August 2016, the company announced that it is working on a serial production of the Airlander 10. The company proudly announces that no other aircraft consumes so little fuel and offers so much space - up to a hundred passengers and up to 10 tons of freight should be possible. In addition, the Airlander 10 would be able to fly for up to five days and 7,000 kilometers. A first customer is already waiting: The Spanish airline "Air Nostrum" plans to use ten Airlanders on domestic flights in Spain from 2026 and made a reservation in June 2022. The airline wants to equip the hybrid airships with 100 seats each and use them on regional routes in Spain in an environmentally friendly manner.

Airships have been around for a while!

The history books tend to portray the catastrophic crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 as the end of a short, glorious age of airships. A closer look, however, reveals that this was not the case. The US Marines continued to deploy airships during World War II to defend against U-boats, and the American Blimp Corporation has used airships for advertising purposes (think of the Goodyear blimps during sportscasts), and new, larger, high-tech airships were still being built by the Zeppelin company in Germany. Thus numerous engineers, innovators, and pilots have spent their entire careers in an industry that, according to popular belief, had ceased to exist. But one thing is certain: Whether the future belongs to the concept behind Airlander 10, the Flying Whale, or both—these majestic aircrafts will continue to take to the skies, visible from far and wide, inspiring a sense of wonder and awe. If it ends up being the heavy cargo loads hanging underneath the airships that makes jaws drop—well, you heard it here first.

The series production of Airlander 10 is about to start soon