Come take a trip in my airship
On 6 May 1937 disaster rocked the airship industry, stopping it in its tracks and taking 36 lives, as the LZ129 Hindenburg was engulfed in flames.
With their origins dating back to the late 1600s, it was not until a hundred years later that the first model- a balloon driven by a hand-powered propeller- took the skies. Throughout the 19th century there was a great excitement surrounding the dirigible airship, and inventors raced one another to evolve the idea into a commercial success. German army general and aircraft manufacturer Count von Zeppelin became the creator of the world’s most famous airship design, the Zeppelin. With a new and terrifying weapon in their arsenal, the German military pushed development of their latest innovation, however the post-war years saw their transition from sinister weapon to luxury air transportation.
The bright future of the airship however was marred by catastrophic accidents, as the highly flammable hydrogen gas that was used to keep them aloft made the aircraft incredibly vulnerable. The Hindenburg disaster in 1937 marked the end of an era for the airship when it burst into flames while docking in Lakehurst, USA at the end of its final journey.
With development of the technology taking a back seat in the decades that followed, there are very few airship projects currently in operation, the most common being the use of non-rigid ships, or blimps, for advertising.
In the advancing aerospace industry of today however, it looks as though the lighter-than-air aircraft are set to make a promising comeback.
UK based company Hybrid Air Vehicles are currently building the Airlander 10, the world’s largest aircraft, in a bid to provide the future of cargo and even passenger air transport. The giant inflatable brings together the most advanced technologies from both fixed wing and rotary aircraft with the basic principles that floated the airships of the past.
The 302-foot long mammoth is currently residing in a hangar 60 miles north of London, and is set to make its maiden flight across Bedfordshire imminently. Unlike its flawed predecessors, the Airlander is filled with inert helium gas and can reach a top speed of around 100mph. Crawling through the air in comparison to commercial aircraft, the Airlander is built for efficiency not speed and when unmanned, is expected to remain airborne for up to two weeks. Unlikely to become an alternative for reaching your holiday destination, the Airlander is instead intended to transport cargo efficiently to remote locations, or provide essential relief in disaster situations. The company suggest however that the cabin that hangs beneath the balloon could in time be converted to provide luxury air travel and flight experiences.
Racing the Airlander to the front of an emerging industry however is the French company Flying Whales, which has recently unveiled its own plans to develop giant airships for moving heavyweight and outsize cargo. The benefit of these colossal blimps will be that they can pick up and deliver loads without needing to land, maximising the efficiency of good haulage.
It is suggested that the winner of the race to develop tomorrows transport could be leading a $50 billion industry within the next 20 years.
In this episode we speak to Dr Mark Schenk, an aerospace engineer whose childhood interest in origami led to innovative work developing foldable structures.Read more