By Keith Norbury
For 20 years, University of Manitoba professor Dr. Barry Prentice had advocated for lighter-than-air ships as a solution to transportation challenges of remote regions like Canada’s north. No such airships have been flown commercially — at least not since the days of the Zeppelins in the 1930s — but their revival is no longer considered a flight of fancy. Several companies — including aviation giant Lockheed Martin — are developing a new generation of 21st century airships that Dr. Prentice expects will take flight within the next few years.
“There’s not a single cargo ship in use,” said Dr. Prentice, a professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management at the university’s I.H. Asper School of Business. “The only ones that are flying are still the advertising blimps. But there’s a lot of interest and people who are trying and are getting close.”
Designing and flying an airship capable of hauling heavy load is difficult, though, “because you can’t start small,” he added. “If you’re dealing with a rigid airship, it has to be big enough to lift its own weight before any kind of useful lift is there. And so that means it has to be a really big vehicle,” Prentice said. “And to be a really big vehicle, you have to have a really big shed to build it in.” That means a huge capital outlay, just to build a working prototype, an amount Dr. Prentice estimates would be around $100 million. But once the design is perfected, the costs of producing subsequent airships would diminish greatly, he said.
Nevertheless, a few companies are getting close to putting airships into service. They include France-based Flying Whales, which recently signed on the Quebec government as a shareholder, and U.S.-based Lockheed Martin, which plans the inaugural flight of its hybrid airship, the LMH-1, within the next couple of years.
“We’ve been doing design work on it, but it hasn’t been built yet,” said Dr. Bob Boyd, hybrid airship program manager for the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.
In an interview with Canadian Sailings, Dr. Boyd said Lockheed Martin has been working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority, as well as with Transport Canada, for the better part of a decade to develop safety certification guidelines for the airship “because it doesn’t fit in any current category of aviation certification.”
That has taken time. Development is also being “paced by the market.” As soon as a firm order comes in, Lockheed Martin will begin production. The company had a $480 million order from a British company, Straightline Aviation, for a dozen LMH-1s. That order is on hold, for reasons Lockheed Martin didn’t wish to publicize, although Dr. Boyd is confident that the order will again be firmed up. The proponents of a rare-earth mine in north-central Quebec are also a potential customer, Dr. Boyd said.
“First, you’ll see them in the air here in California, or wherever we’re testing, and probably about a year after we get the testing, we’ll finally get the certification so we can actually operate commercially,” Dr. Boyd said. “So it’s probably more like two to three years away from a commercial operation.”
Lockheed Martin has flown a prototype, the P-791, which more than a decade ago “successfully demonstrated all the technologies needed to make this real,” notes a posting on the Lockheed Martin website.
The LMH-1, which uses technologies developed for the P-791, would carry 21.3 tonnes of cargo, 19 passengers and two crew. But that would just be the beginning. The LMH-2 would have a cargo capacity of 100 tonnes, while future models would carry as much as 500 to 700 tonnes, Dr. Boyd said.
The cargo bay of the LMH-1 would measure 10 feet by 10 feet by 60 feet, big enough for a standard shipping container or a small mobile office trailer. The LMH-2 cargo bay would be twice as tall and wide and 160 feet long.
“A hybrid aircraft is really more like a fast ship than a slow airplane,” Dr. Boyd is fond of saying. Lockheed Martin envisions scaled up versions of the craft to carry as many as 300 freight containers at a time as well as tanks, helicopters and other large machines. The cost would be comparable to what it now costs to move freight via ice roads, Dr. Boyd said. The difference is the airships will be able to operate year-round.
Aviation historian Dan Grossman, who administers the website airships.net, said if any company can develop a successful airship capable of hauling heavy cargos to remote regions, it’s Lockheed Martin. “Lockheed is, it goes without saying, a very serious enterprise, a serious company with a serious track record,” Mr. Grossman said. “And if they want to do something, they’re probably better positioned than anyone else in the world to do it successfully.” He cautioned, however, that airships are only likely to exploit a very small, niche market.
According to Drs. Body and Prentice, such niches abound — for example, in Africa, where rains often wash out dirt roads, and in South America, and small islands of Indonesia that lack seaports or airports, for example. Airships could also bring supplies and equipment to places where a hurricane or earthquake wipes out the infrastructure.
Flying Whales is a Chinese airship company that has received support from the government of France. (China and AVIC General, a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China Ltd., are the “key partners,” says the Flying Whales Website. AVIC General owns 24.9 percent of Flying Whales and is contributing to the design of the LCA60T airship that will have a capacity of 60 tonnes, according to the Flying Whales website.) At the Paris Air Show in June, Flying Whales announced that the government of Quebec is buying a minority stake in the company. While the financial terms have not been disclosed, the parties are aiming for a “definitive accord” by Sept. 30, the Montreal Gazette reported in June. The proposed deal would include building airships at a plant in Montreal that would employ up to 400 people, Flying Whales CEO Sébastien Bougon told the newspaper. North American operations for a Flying Whales unit that operate the airships would also be based in Quebec, the report said.
Flying Whales promises solutions to connect the land-locked world to the global economy, provide “immediate rescue when infrastructures are destroyed,” and log from land-locked areas. The French National Forest Agency is a partner and “key contributor” to the Flying Whales vision, says the Flying Whales press kit.
Specs of the LCA60T include a 60-tonne payload, and a cruising speed of 100 kilometres an hour. Among its potential missions, aside from logging, would be the transport of wind turbine components, electrical towers, and cable reels. The airships could also carry prefabricated houses to remote areas, Mr. Bougon told the Gazette. According to the press kit, the first flight would happen in 2022 with certification and operation in 2023.
What distinguishes Lockheed Martin’s airships is a proprietary technology that enables the ships to land without any mooring infrastructure. Called the air cushion landing system, or ACLS, it employs large pads containing fans like those on a hovercraft to land. Upon landing on the doughnut-like pads, the low-power fans reverse, creating enough suction to stick the craft to the ground. “Obviously, you can’t stand winds up to hurricane strength,” Dr. Boyd said. “But we can get well into the 95 percentile, which is as good as you would ever do with a mooring tower.” Typically, an airship will moor to a mast and move with the wind. “But if you’re trying to load and unload cargo all the time, it’s really hard to do that when it’s moving around,” Dr. Boyd explained. The patented system enables the airship to land on any flat surface, including snow, sand or even water.
Dr. Prentice himself is the co-founder and president of a more modest venture called Buoyant Aircraft Systems International, which is exploring a different solution — building revolving terminals, or turntables, at the destinations the airships serve. “If you look at the way transportation works, virtually everything goes from a prepared base to a prepared base,” Dr. Prentice said. “Even trucks go from a loading dock to a loading dock. Ships go from port to port and trains go from station to station, and airplanes go from airport to airport. Why would airships not be the same?”
While Dr. Prentice argues that building such turntables would be cheaper than building runways to remote communities, aviation historian Dan Grossman is skeptical. “What airships are theoretically best at is providing access to remote areas that need access so infrequently that you can’t justify the creation of transportation infrastructure,” Mr. Grossman said. “In other words, if you’re going to be dropping stuff off at a certain town, like every week, just build a damn airport, or build a road, or lay a railway track.”
Ice roads transport a lot of freight to the Arctic. But they cost $3,500 to $6,000 per kilometre to build, and they can only be built during winters, which are getting shorter in the age of climate change. Ships and barges have the opposite problem when serving the north; sea ice prevents passage in winter, limiting sea service to two or three deliveries a year, which sometimes are missed, Buoyant notes.
Buoyant even has a bold vision statement: “Northern Milk at City Prices.” The company is a long way from achieving that, although it does have a small airship capable of carrying one passenger aloft, and it has conducted research on how a non-rigid helium airship performs in cold weather.
Lockheed Martin’s airship attains up to 20 per cent of its lift aerodynamically because of its shape. “The hull itself is actually a wing,” Dr. Boyd explained. By comparison, the cylindrical Zeppelins of old relied almost entirely on buoyant hydrogen to lift them into the skies. Modern airships rely primarily on a huge envelope that contains [hydrogen or] helium to keep them buoyant, and rely on conventional aircraft engines to move them in different directions.
The website of an organization called the Airship Association has links to about two dozen airship constructors and prototype/research projects as well as several envelope designers and manufacturers. However, many of the links are now obsolete, although others do link to programs in various states of development. They include Varialift Airships, ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (which builds Goodyear’s current airships), Hybrid Air Vehicles, and Skyship Services Inc., which makes advertising airships similar to the famous Goodyear blimps.
In the 1920s and 1930s airships experienced their heyday. Zeppelins made hundreds of trips, carrying thousands of passengers across the Atlantic. The most successful ship of all, the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin made 590 flights that carrying 34,000 passengers over a million miles — without any loss of life, notes airship.net. But then, in 1937 the LZ-129 Hindenburg burned to the ground in a deadly mooring accident in Lakehurst, NJ, killing all 36 on board, and ended the era of dirigibles, until interest returned in the early seventies, driven by interest expressed by the U.S. military and the logging industry. One of the attractions of helium-filled airships was (and remains) their relative safety because even if they were to lose their charge of helium (as a result of enemy fire or some other catastrophic failure), the airship’s engines in some design could provide vertical lift to avoid a crash landing.
Mr. Grossman, the aviation historian, does not think it’s a good idea for modern airships to use hydrogen to keep them aloft. On the contrary, “Hydrogen is the earth’s lightest element, and it can be obtained easily and inexpensively, but its flammability makes it unacceptable for manned airship operations,” Mr. Grossman wrote on airships.net. For that reason, he was surprised to learn that Dr. Prentice is advocating for a return to using hydrogen as a lifting gas. Dr. Prentice argues that employing modern technologies and materials should render the use of hydrogen safe. He also attributes the aversion to hydrogen in part to a pre-war propaganda campaign against the Germans. “For 40 years, they flew airships with hydrogen. And none of them actually had an accident like the Hindenburg except the Hindenburg,” Dr. Prentice said.
Actually, fire accidentally destroyed dozens of other airships, according to Mr. Grossman, who lists 20 other examples on airships.net, as well as photos of wreckage. Some had death tolls comparable to the Hindenburg’s. The 1922 crash of the U.S. Army’s Roma killed 34 crew members, for instance.
The problem is containing such large amounts of hydrogen so that it never leaks.
“It’s just a challenge,” Mr. Grossman said. “We could do a much better job than in the 1930s. But can you do a good enough job? Can it be fool-proof enough that you would risk human life?”
Dr. Boyd of Lockheed Martin said the risks of hydrogen outweigh its benefits so much that the higher cost of insurance would make it uneconomical even though helium is much more expensive. Hydrogen only generates about six per cent more lift than helium, he said. And contrary to a recent Internet meme, the world isn’t running out of helium. “We’ve done the calculations,” Dr. Boyd said. “Even if we were making every airship we can conceive of to fill the world demand, we’re only going to consume five per cent of the world’s helium coming out of the ground every day right now.” The cargo industry isn’t used to taking risks by its very nature, Dr. Boyd said. “Nobody ever designed a new cargo airplane. They’re always passenger-carrying airplanes that are converted.”
Nevertheless, he envisions airships revolutionizing the movement of cargo to remote communities just as the shipping container revolutionized ocean freight in middle of the last century. “We believe this is something that will make a difference,” Dr. Boyd said. “We’re just working those last little bits of risk out of the operations team, and then we’ll see it.”