Airships: Not just flying billboards

By Ann Wilkes

Whether they're transporting much-needed supplies to a remote village in Alaska, flying champagne-sipping passengers over the Grand Canyon, facilitating communications, scanning a disaster or war zone, hauling minerals from an arctic mine, or taking us closer to the stars, airships are definitely in our future. They are soaring from the pages of steampunk novels and the imaginations of young engineers and entrepreneurs into our skies. Welcome to the airship renaissance.

Steampunk and airships

Mainspring cover

Jay Lake's Mainspring.

Steampunk fans and authors need little convincing about the benefits of airships in modern-day applications. That's what steampunk is all about—taking the steam-powered age a step further, extrapolating what might have been if the technologies that replaced steam power and clockworks had been slower in coming. Steampunk is set "on the cusp between the end of the age of the individual technological innovator/individual manufacturer and true mass production," said steampunk author Jay Lake. "In the popular imagination, all the way through the nineteenth century right into the Victorian, maybe even into the Edwardian era, you have the notion of the craftsman who can create some important piece of technology in their laboratory." Today we're teasing out better fuel efficiency; smaller, higher capacity information storage; and faster information processing. Those things are important, but think of the impact that those early inventions had.

"Wind history back one hundred years and you've got people arguing big questions," said award-winning science fiction author David D. Levine. "Can people fly at all? Can we make cars that will run faster than a horse? The world speed record was being broken all the time and it really mattered. . . . I think Zeppelins are emblematic of that whole period of history."

New materials, designs, and applications

Airships are lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft with propulsion and steering systems. The Zeppelin is a rigid airship, which means the envelope is enclosed by a rigid frame. The hybrid airship, a combination of a traditional aircraft and an airship, addresses the problems that stronger, lighter materials can't. It employs a secondary, traditional means of propulsion in addition to the static lift gained by the buoyancy of the helium. The advantages are greater maneuverability, stability, and ground handling. Airship builder Hybrid Airship Vehicles in Britain uses a suction effect for landing, which makes unloading and reloading easier. Lockheed Martin's P-791 uses an "air cushion" technology for launching and landing.

For those who don't have their noses in steampunk novels, the word Zeppelin may conjure up a newsreel of the Hindenburg disaster, with reporter Herbert Morrison wailing, "Oh, the humanity." Aerospace engineers and airship experts across the globe aim to replace that image with one of an ecologically friendly LTA vehicle that can do things conventional aircraft can't and in places where planes and helicopters can't go—and for a fraction of the price.

Airships didn't just suffer from bad press and the loss of confidence after the Hindenburg disaster. Engineers were limited by available materials and mistakes were much more costly. "Given what technology, what understanding they had at the time, [airships] did amazing things," said Ian Dupzyk, aeroengineer and owner of Advanced Concepts Engineering—Airships.

Hidenburg burning

1937's Hindenburg disaster.

Computer design and modeling allows designers and engineers to work out most of the bugs before they begin to build. New durable, lightweight materials enable designers to rethink not only the viability of airships, but also their capabilities. Today's airships, built for military and commercial clients, are mostly for surveillance and heavy cargo transport. Ron Hochstetler, an internationally known member of the LTA community with twenty-five years' experience, said that persistent surveillance and cargo transport are the two most promising applications.

When it comes to hauling cargo, "you can't beat the per-ton mile of a semi going down the Interstate in the U.S.," Hochstetler said. However, to transport supplies in a remote diamond mine in Northern Canada, mining operations rely on ice truckers, and even then, they can only make the trip three months out of the year, he explained. Airships can bring "affordable, environmentally compatible, sustainable transportation services to that vast territory."

At the two-day Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop in Anchorage in August 2011, Alaska took a serious look at the benefits of airships to reach areas with little or no transportation infrastructure. Discovery Air Innovations of Canada has commissioned a fleet of HAV 366 airships for cargo transport from Hybrid Air Vehicles of the United Kingdom. In December 2011, Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI) and non-profit research firm ISO Polar unveiled their completed Sky Whale, an eighty-foot airship, in Winnipeg. The Sky Whale is designed for heavy lifting in arctic regions.

Richard Van Treuren, space shuttle veteran and Editor of the Naval Airship Association's magazine The Noon Balloon, agreed. The Norseman bush plane, he said, can hold maybe one ton of cargo, but while it can hold a ton of lead, it can never hold a ton of feathers. "In other words, most of the things we need are bulky rather than heavy. That's where the airships are going to make a big difference because bulk is the airship's forté."

For surveillance, speed isn't an issue, but staying aloft for extended periods of time without refueling is. Airships don't have to circle and guzzle large amounts of fossil fuel, but can easily hang over the same space for extended periods of time. Airships were used for surveillance as early as World War I. Hochstetler said the U.S. Navy started contracting for surveillance airships again back in the mid-'80s because they needed something that could fly at low altitudes over the water to spot missiles that the carriers couldn't see in time. After the Columbia shuttle disaster, Van Treuren was part of the Emergency Response Team, or Red Team, sent to recover pieces of the shuttle to investigate what went wrong. After searching ineffectually on foot, he said, "We need to get airborne!" Aboard a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, he spotted something and hollered at the pilot to get closer. When the pilot did, the Black Hawk's rotors kicked up so much dirt it obliterated their view of the fragment. Van Treuren suggested they get an airship instead. The brass agreed, but the order was subsequently and inexplicably cancelled.

Skywhale

The unveiling of the Skywhale.

In war zones, where the vulnerability of the envelope is an issue, a High Altitude Airship (HAA) is in order. Lockheed Martin's HAA will fly at high altitudes without compromising surveillance or communications capability. In fact, going higher is an asset to communications in areas with mountainous terrain. Its demonstrator model, the High Altitude Endurance—Demonstrator (HALE-D) completed its first test flight on July 27, 2011. Lockheed Martin, which has been building LTAs since 1928, claims, "High-strength fabrics to minimize hull weight, thin-film solar arrays for the regenerative power supply, and lightweight propulsion units are key technologies ready to make a high-flying airship a reality." In addition to the HAA, the United States military has contracted the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), the Blue Devil 2, and the MZ-3A, all of which are either under construction or nearing the construction phase. The main military application for airships is Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Another airship, the Argus One, designed for surveillance applications by World Surveillance Group Inc. for the US Navy is undergoing test flights. It's unique in that it looks like a worm and can easily change directions. The US military has so many airship programs underway that the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama on December 15, 2011 calls for the Secretary of Defense to appoint a senior airship official to oversee all Department of Defense airship programs.

The EU-funded Multibody Advanced Airship for Transport (MAAT) is a multi-use airship project that began in September of 2011, which consists of a hexagonal Photovoltaic Transport Aerial High altitude system (PTAH) and six Aerial Transport Elevator Network (ATEN) feeder ships. The ATENs would hold the cargo and people and disengage from the PTAH to make room for a different set of ATENs to launch and engage. The PTAH is also designed to swap out ATENs in the air when it comes in range of another PTAH.

With new technology, new applications present themselves, such as a communication relay platform and delivering medical technology, manufacturing equipment, and supplies to remote areas. Sharath Girimaji, general dynamics professor of the aerospace engineering department at Texas A&M, said, "We can do space-type applications without going to space and we can do it very cheap." Lockheed Martin claims its High Altitude Airship (HAA) will provide its "users capabilities on par with satellites at a fraction of the cost (one to two orders of magnitude less)."

Zeppelins rise again!

Eureka

Airship Venture's Eureka.

In California, a commercial Zeppelin NT cruise ship makes regular flights out of Moffett Field. It is the only Zeppelin in the Americas and one of only two operating in the world today. For just under $400 per person, the Eureka, Airship Ventures' 75-meter long, 12-passenger Zeppelin NT, flies passengers around the San Francisco Bay and has been since late 2008. Airship Ventures even offers a package for aircraft pilots to get a little stick time in a Zeppelin. Eureka passengers are free to wander around the cabin and ogle out the many windows, converse with the pilot and co-pilot and take pictures. There's even a window in the bathroom.

Airship Ventures' Katharine Board, the only female airship pilot in the world, said she hadn't quite worked out how she got to be an airship pilot. Right time and place, she guessed. Board said she could hardly call it a job, though, since it's so much fun.

David Levine, who rode on the Eureka, said, "A Zeppelin is kind of a flying cruise ship, whereas a modern-day airliner is more like a flying greyhound bus."

Van Treuren, the space shuttle veteran, said he's flown in just about all the airships and even "been lucky enough to actually be at the controls for a few hours on different types." He said, "There's absolutely nothing like the Zeppelin NT because it's smoother, quieter and offers more control with less trouble than any airship flying today."

Airships of the future

Clearly, airships are an old answer to new questions. If we fast-forward fifteen years into the future, what will we be using airships for? Ian Dupzyk envisions sightseeing tours in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon once we're able to manufacture airships on a commercial scale. He could see a 300-passenger flying nightclub with San Francisco twinkling below, in which passengers can barhop for $50-$100 per night on airships that stop every 45 minutes.

Van Treuren, the space shuttle veteran, predicted that in fifteen years we would see airships hauling cargo for military and commercial clients; gathering information for military and scientific purposes; and flying passengers leisurely along the Nile or Amazon in style.

Professor Girimaji said that in addition to freight and passenger flights in countries lacking sufficient transportation infrastructure, passenger Zeppelin flights on the scale of the Hindenburg would be a definite possibility. He's excited about the new ideas in industry, including a hard-shell design being developed by Coopership, a Dallas, Texas-based company, which allows for configurations in interesting shapes. Portland, Oregon-based Windcrafters, he said, insists that the best shape for airships is a vertical cylinder. A skeptic at first, he's becoming a believer. The vertical design increases vertical stability, and with a cylindrical sail and keels at top or bottom or both, it has better maneuverability, he said, adding that they look "like a pirate ship floating through air."

LTA expert Hochstetler suggested that the National Guard could deploy optionally-manned airships for station keeping 20,000 feet over a disaster area for a week or two. These airships would provide telecommunications connections for first-responders and National Guard units on the ground. They could also relay broadband connections to the medical teams responding to the disaster. On the commercial side, airships would be used similarly to boost the signal during a large event like a political convention or championship sporting event—what he described as a "poor man's satellite." In addition, he said, airships would be used for passenger/freight flights in remote areas in South America and Africa.

His hope for the near future is an old application revived with a twist. In World War I, the Navy used airships as aircraft carriers. Hochstetler can see the military using them once again for aircraft deployment, but in miniature—like the unmanned Boeing Scan Eagle. It has a 15-foot wingspan, weighs 40 pounds and can stay aloft for 24 hours. "If I had 50 [small, surveillance aircraft] on my airship, the airship would be the mother ship and I could send those little birds out where I can't go and increase my range and scanning ability." He added that the affordable, unmanned scanning planes are a less significant setback if they're lost.

Tandem balloon

JP Aerospace's Tandem balloon takes flight.

Let's not forget our mothballed space program. JP Aerospace is developing airships that will take us to space. No, really. Aerospace engineer and owner John Powell, claims his ships and space stations will be a reality in seven years. His brochure claims that each component of the three-stage architecture has its own business applications and funding sources, including the Department of Defense. The manned, hybrid, atmospheric airship will travel to 140,000 feet where it will dock with a suborbital space station called a Dark Sky Station. The permanently crewed DSS will initially be a construction facility for the 6,000-foot orbital airship that will take flight from there to orbit—and, eventually, beyond. The atmospheric ship is completed, awaiting its first test flight.

The organization tested its tandem balloon on Saturday, October 22, 2011. The Tandem reached 95,085 feet, flew around, and landed smoothly three hours later, breaking the airship altitude record. The Tandem is JP Aerospace's delivery and construction workhorse and test platform according to Powell. In 2012, JP Aerospace will be launching a manned airship.

The company manufactured small satellites in the 70s. "We were going to be flying on Columbia with our satellites," Powell said. "We literally got a call from the investors while the parts were falling." The management team decided to look for a way to go to space without raising funds, intending to do it with the money in their pockets. When asked how he came up with airships as a way to get to space, Powell said, "We started looking at the original history of the space program and there were a lot of balloons in it. Before Sputnik, the U.S. had gone to space seven times." That was James Van Allen's rockoons, which were a combination of rocket and balloon.

"We could take modern materials and tech and do even better," Powell said. "The idea is that if you get the balloon bigger and bigger, the rocket can get smaller and smaller, because you can carry it higher before you launch. What if you got the balloon so big, and you got it going so fast, that you could do away with the rocket all together?" He added that the airship would accelerate over a period of days instead of all burn for a couple of seconds.

New industry, new blood

The Goodyear blimp came to a Purdue/Notre Dame football game at Purdue University when Hochstetler was studying aircraft mechanics there. He and his parents, who were visiting at the time, walked right up to where it was moored in the grass near a runway. He and his dad looked into the open cockpit, but his mother, being shorter, couldn't see in. She grabbed the handrail to pull herself up to see—which pulled the ship down! Hochstetler said, "It seemed to belong in the sky. It just captured me. I didn't want to be landing gear door specialist on 747s in some army of mechanics somewhere." He recommends the airship industry for young people looking for an exciting career. "With airships, you have an entirely new type of vehicle. It is the last unexploited air transportation system."

A new project at Texas A&M is ushering in that second coming. Girimaji's students are brainstorming ideas in three areas: determining the best shape for a balloon; improving on current balloon and blimp designs for improving data gathering for Homeland Security and search and rescue; and developing a balloon passenger transportation system for rural and difficult terrains. Retired NASA engineers with the airship bug have joined in for the sheer fun of it. Girimaji encourages his students to think big and bold. They will narrow their focus later to the most promising ideas for further development.

"This field has kind of frozen in time and, in my opinion, this is its second coming," Girimaji said. "My recent interest in this has been from the point of view of green aviation. I'm sure all the airship enthusiasts will tell you that it's a good idea whose time has come." Barry Prentice, President and CEO of BASI and former director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba stated in that university's press release, "The airship industry will need many engineers and technicians, as well as pilots and ground crews as the technology becomes accepted and expands. It is our hope that Manitoba can be the centre of this educational and research activity because it will help attract other airship companies to establish a presence in the Province of Manitoba." Toward that end, according the same press release, BASI signed a Memorandum of Understanding with University of Manitoba and Red River College. Both institutes are in Winnipeg.

According to Powell, JP Aerospace has conducted more experiments in space than all the other space programs combined. The company regularly involves students—even first graders—who send them various objects inside ping pong balls to launch in their airships. Airships, clearly, are the wave of the future, not a relic of the past.


Ann Wilkes's fiction runs funny or tragic. Sometimes she combines the two, swirling them into a delicious mixture reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. She also entertains sci-fi fans with her award-winning blog, Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys, which is filled with reviews, news, and author interviews. Visit her at www.annwilkes.com, or email Ann at kawilkes@gmail.com.

Comments

That was a very informative and interesting article! Thank you for the good information.

Man, I hope I can ride a Zeppelin someday.

Airships are beautiful craft. But that does not mean they are practical. Every decade of so we get stories about a new age for airships and the lessons about weather and economics have to be relearned, dooming the efforts of enthusiasts. Note that you always see airships floating or moving on clear, almost windless, days. The slightest bit of weather and their control is lost.

As for JP Aerospace, I read "Floating to Orbit", but AFAICS, there is immense hand waving about how a large airship can gain the speed it needs to get to orbit. Their legerdemain is that inflated vehicles have re-entered the earth's atmosphere from orbit, but that is hardly the same as going the other way. Their high altitude station is the most interesting concept, and looks very doable to me as a research platform.

Incredibly well-researched, informative and a good read. Thanks!

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