PETER FROST looks skyward to a new kind of flying machine that could make the way we will travel in the future far more sustainable.
IT WASN’T a very auspicious start for the world’s longest and largest aircraft that has been amazing me and the people of Bedford this week.
On just its second trial flight it hit the ground rather faster than it should and sustained some spectacular damage to its cockpit area.
Fortunately, no one was hurt and the manufacturers have promised they will soon have it repaired and flying again.
The flight and its dramatic finale took place at the huge airship sheds at Cardington, near Bedford. The Airlander 10 is 302 feet long (92 metres) — and is the size of a football pitch.
It is an airship hybrid that gains lift both from helium gas — far safer than inflammable hydrogen — conventional aircraft aerofoils and rotors like a helicopter.
It is about 60 feet (18 metres) longer than the biggest of passenger jets and despite its huge size it is far quieter and far more fuel-efficient than even the most modern passenger jet.
British firm Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) has spent nine years developing the Airlander.
Initially funded by the US Army, spending cuts and drone technology made its original planned uses redundant.
Now HAV are developing it for peaceful uses — a real swords into ploughshares project — including cargo transport, humanitarian missions and passenger travel.
Will this new airship usher in a new era of lighter-than-air flight?
Let’s take a look at the history and the pros and cons of the airship.
Hanging above my desk is an ancient Soviet poster.
In it Lenin is greeting a crowd of workers and the sky above him is filled with shiny, silver streamlined airships.
“We are building a fleet of airships in the name of Lenin,” shouts the headline.
The poster reflects the enthusiasm for lighter-than-air craft in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and ‘30s.
Posters and postage stamps are full of these streamlined symbols of modern technology.
Airship development was incorporated in the five-year plans but actual results were often shrouded in secrecy.
Two huge historical disasters, the crash of the British Airship R101 into a hillside in Beauvais, France in October 1930 and the 1937 German airship, Hindenburg, crashing in flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey might have finished lighter-than-air flight forever. But neither quite killed the dream.
In 2006 I flew in a brand new zeppelin over Lake Constance in Germany.
The famous German company are still building airships both in Germany and under licence by the Goodyear company in the US.
My flight was an incredible experience.
The huge cigar shaped ship is far bigger than a jumbo jet but the 12 passenger gondola underneath is about the same size as a minibus.
Because of the way it flies, loading and unloading an airship isn’t easy.
If you unloaded all twelve passengers at once the ship would be so lightened it would leap up into the air. What has to happen is that two passengers get off, then two new ones get on so that the ship is balanced.
The process is repeated until the whole dozen passengers are changed for new ones.
It takes less than five minutes from landing to next take off. So what is it like to fly in an airship?
Well, totally different from any conventional aircraft I’ve ever flown in.
No noise or vibration, the engines are buried inside the cigar and a long way from the gondola.
There is no feeling of speed, the almost vertical take-off is like going up in a very gentle lift.
In flight you can walk about, open a window and lean out to take a photograph.
Landings are gentle and at very low speed, hence the lack of injuries in yesterday’s Airlander incident.
Airships were, and are still, always built and stored in sheds not hangars.
When the two huge sheds at Cardington just outside Bedford were built, they were the largest buildings in the world.
They still dominate the Bedfordshire skyline and are where the new Airlander is being built and flown.
The two biggest and best known British Airships were the R101 and the R100, both built as part of an initiative by the 1923 Labour government.
Labour’s first air minister, Lord Thompson, planned passenger and mail services from Britain to the most distant parts of the empire including India, Australia and Canada. No conventional winged aeroplane of the time could even contemplate flights of this distance.
This imperial airship scheme called for the building of two experimental airships.
One, R101, to be designed and constructed by the Air Ministry and the other, the R100 to be built by the private Airship Guarantee Company.
This led to the nicknames the “Socialist Airship” and the “Capitalist Airship” from the media of the day.
Each of the two British airships would use five million cubic feet (140,000 m³) of hydrogen and weigh 90 tons.
Each would be able to lift nearly 62 tons.
A hundred passengers could travel at 60 to 70 mph for up to a 57-hour flight.
At 731 feet long (223 metres) the R101 was much more than twice the length of today’s new 302 feet long (92 metres) Airlander.
The scheme also involved mooring masts at Bedford, Ismalia, Karachi and Montreal. New York’s new Empire State Building was to incorporate an airship mooring mast at its highest pinnacle.
The leading British expert on airships in the 1920s was a communist, Christopher St John Sprigg, better known as Christopher Caudwell.
Caudwell was a Marxist philosopher, writer, literary critic and exceptional poet.
He died tragically young, aged just 29 fighting in the International Brigade in Spain.
He was also an expert on all things aeronautical and started his own publication — Aircraft Engineering Magazine — using the name Christopher Sprigg.
It published many influential articles on airships by Sprigg and other experts.
These articles led to his definitive 1931 book, The Airship: Its Design, History, Operation and Future.
Recently reprinted, it is still read by those who believe the airship has a key role to play in modern aviation.
The R100 design team was led by Barnes Wallis, who would become famous for his dam-busting bouncing bomb.
His principal assistant was Nevil Shute who would find fame as a novelist.
Having two separate design teams for the two airships, it was hoped, would extend the limits of existing technology.
An extremely optimistic timetable was drawn up, with construction to begin in July 1925 with a trial flight to India being planned for January 1927.
After many delays — including stretching the ship by a further 46 feet to increase lift — it was still not ready when Lord Thompson ordered the R101 to fly to India with him on board by early October 1930.
The ship simply wasn’t finished and on October 5 during its maiden overseas voyage to India, it crashed into a French hillside killing 48 of the 54 people on board.
Among the dead were Lord Thompson himself and the cream of airship designers from the Airships Works at Cardington.
Now, more than 85 years later the shadow of a new giant airship is floating across the sheds of Cardington.
Are we looking at a harbinger of the greener, more sustainable kind of air travel just as Christopher Sprigg or Caudwell wrote about all those years ago?
Let’s hope yesterday’s sad incident doesn’t kill the dream.