The golden age of the airship ended in flames. The Hindenburg, which killed 35 of the 97 passengers and crew on board, exploded at the height of the airship’s popularity and performance. Immediately supplanted by airplanes, airships became the stuff of novelty advertising and steampunk fashion. Today only about 25 blimps and fewer dirigibles operate globally. But a few companies are trying to bring back the technology as a practical, versatile tool for our commercial economy. How practical can airships be?
When it comes to airship futures, Igor Pasternak may be the most bullish person on the planet. A Ukrainian engineer with a confidence that toes into Donald Trump and Jose Mourinho territory, Pasternak makes bold claims about his Worldwide Aeros Corp and the Aeros ships that they manufacture. Just take a few cuts from a 2016 New Yorker video profile of the man:
“I think I got the best ideas. I don’t have good ideas. I have the best ideas.”
“How do I know? I’m the expert.”
“I don’t have competitors. They think I’m their competitor. But they’re not my competitors.”
Aeros began as a company that constructed airships for advertising before tacking to build much larger ones for cargo transport. Aeros uses a patented system to compress helium and take on air as ballast, allowing the ship to sink and land smoothly. By 2013, Aeros had built the largest rigid airship that the U.S. had seen since the 1930s. Called the Dragon Dream, it was two hundred and sixty-six feet long. In October of 2013, a collapse of the hangar housing the airship crushed the vessel’s fins, engine, and trusses.
Undeterred, Pasternak and Aeros claim to be building a fleet of Aeroscraft airships that are even larger than the Dragon Dream. The first, the smallest, will be five hundred and fifty-five feet long and able to carry sixty-six tons of cargo. It will have a cruising speed of 120 knots and at a range of greater than 5,000 miles. Two larger versions of the Aeroscraft will haul two-hundred-and-fifty-tons and five-hundred-tons respectively. The larger of the two will be about nine hundred and twenty feet long, or nearly the length of three football fields. According to Aeros, all of these vessels promise to use less fuel than cargo planes.
Though Pasternak may not acknowledge his competition, it lurks in hangars all over the world. As told by Jeanne Marie Laskas in a 2016 New Yorker article, “The aerospace heavyweights Boeing and Northrop Grumman have developed airships; Russia, Brazil, and China have built or conceived prototypes, and Canada has designs for a few of them, including the Solar Ship, which looks like a bloated stealth bomber, with solar panels spread across the top of helium-filled wings. All are racing to be first to corner a cargo market that may be worth billions.”
In 2016, a British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles successfully launched the largest aircraft in the world. The Airlander 10 is 92 meters long and 43.5 meters wide. It can carry 10 tons, a capacity comparable to military transport helicopters like the Boeing CH-47 and the Chinook. The company boasts that an Airlander can be built much more cheaply than vessels of equal capacity.
Another competitor is Lockheed Martin, the weapons defense manufacturer bankrolled by the Pentagon. The above New Yorker piece suggests that Lockheed has been quietly developing a nonrigid airship, called the LMH-1, for the past 25 years. Lockheed representative Bob Boyd estimates that the LMH-1 will become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of 2017, paving the way for delivery in 2018.
The benefits of airship transport are still largely theoretical. Because they don’t need traditional transportation infrastructure – ports, rail lines, roads, or airstrips – they could offer a valuable means of remote transport or of relieving disasters where infrastructure has been demolished or never constructed. Pasternak suggests that airships can be used to deliver massive materials like wind turbines, the land transport of which is currently limited by the reach and size of road corridors.
A number of transportation experts have poked holes in the growing enthusiasm for airships. In a recent New York Times piece, Richard Aboulafia, a transport and cargo analyst, notes one major economic flaw in airship transport: Most shipments of exotic cargo will be one way. As opposed to cargo ships, which generally refill at ports of delivery, massive resources will be wasted on empty return journeys.
Current airship models have two disadvantages compared to conventional cargo transport. They’re slower than airplanes and cannot move as much freight as cargo ships. In the above New Yorker article, William Crowder, a fellow at the Logistics Management Institute, suggests to that to successfully fill the value gap between cargo ships and airplanes, airships will need to haul a similar amount of freight to super-jumbo carriers — five hundred to a thousand tons.
Another problem could be the cost and supply of helium, the non-flammable gas that all modern airships depend on for lift. A rare, noble gas, helium escapes the earth’s crust and gravity for part of the same reason that it makes a good lifting gas: it’s lighter than air. But any reports of the so-called “helium shortage” may be overblown. A 2016 Wired article reports that recent discoveries of vast quantities of the gas mean that the earth contains more than previously thought. In 2014, the US Department of Interior estimated helium reserves on earth to be about 1,169 billion cubic feet, or enough for 117 more years. And while the supply of any finite resource should concern us, we can recycle the gas. As opposed to fossil fuels, helium can be used more than once.
The next few years in airship development will prove telling. Can technologies promised by Aeros, HAV, Lockheed and others scale up to sizes that make them economically competitive with other means of moving cargo? Doubters say that the same fruitless and nostalgic pipe dream has existed since the second World War. Believers, like Pasternak, say we’re on the cusp of a transport revolution.
I want to suggest that an equally viable market for airships could be more similar to the one they initially occupied — as vehicles made to move people. As cruise ships for the sky.
Because of a handful of fiery disasters that punctuated the commercial history of the airship, it’s easy to forget how many successful and safe flights airships managed during their golden age. For example, in its nine years of operation, the Graf Zeppelin, the first commercial passenger transatlantic flight service in the world, made 590 flights, 144 oceanic crossings, and carried 13,110 passengers over one million total miles without ever injuring a passenger or crewman.
This is a cherry-picked example of the safest airship on record, but the success of airships like the Graf Zeppelin could serve as inspiration. In the 1930s, passengers referred to a trip taken in an airship as a voyage. As an experience and as a word, a voyage promises a larger sense of romance and exploration than a flight — a jet-propelled slash through the sky. I imagine that airships float at heights and speeds that allow the landscape to come alive — to tickle, to captivate, to take on new meaning. Planes buzz over landscapes at heights and speeds that leave you lucky to recognize a lake, a river, a city.
I would value a form of slow intercontinental travel that causes less physical and mental stress than airplanes do. A form of travel that lets us see the world in a new way. A form of travel that lets the passenger stretch out physically and mentally, to hunker down in private spaces or to be loud in social ones. And a form of travel that uses less fuel than either airplanes or massive cruise liners. I have a hunch I’m not alone.