Hovering on the Edge: Will airships go mainstream… again?

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Hovering on the Edge: Will airships go mainstream… again?

A light breeze gusted against the enormous hangars that dominate the pastoral skyline of Bedfordshire, like Brobdingnagian relics in Gulliver’s Travels. “The weather was fine,” the post-accident report stated – perfect conditions for the Airlander 10’s second test flight, scheduled for Aug. 24, 2016. In the fields adjacent to the U.K.’s Cardington Airfield, aviation enthusiasts lurked, cameras at the ready, while the test pilots and engineers readied the unusual craft for flight. At 08:12 hours, the massive airship un-masted and, for 98 minutes, flew over Bedfordshire before approaching the mooring mast for landing. That’s when things started heading south.

A diesel engine that powered the hydraulic pumps driving the winch conked out, delaying the landing and forcing the pilot to go airborne again. As the aircraft ascended, the mooring line was retracted through a panel in the cabin door but, as the aircraft rose, the mooring line fell out under its own weight, and dangled dangerously close to the ground.

That faulty winch would come back to haunt Chris Daniels, head of communications and partnerships at Hybrid Air Vehicles, who explained that its broken handle “prevented us from attaching the mooring line to the mooring mast.” Under pressure, human error became a factor. The aircraft nosed down steeply, began to descend, and struck the ground, causing damage to the cabin flight deck area.

That slow-motion crash pushed airships into the public consciousness for the first time in decades, and quickly became the biggest airship story of the year – one video of the incident has almost 10 million views.

“A £23 winch handle caused a multi-million-pound damage. It’s a salient lesson to focus on the little things,” Daniels said. But in many ways, he added, it was an important learning experience. “It means that we’re sharper, better, more aware,” he said. “People are looking at that £23 handle everywhere in the business all the time – almost as a fixation.”

Hybrid Air Vehicles also learned a lot about sticking to the plan and training everyone in procedures. The crash exposed vulnerabilities that engineers were able to offset with modifications. “Now, no matter what angle we land at, it won’t affect the cockpit,” Daniels boasted. Of equal importance, both pilots walked away from the crash without a scratch. “While it was frightening at the time, we could look back and say that we have quite an aircraft. Any other aircraft, and we would have had dead pilots and a wrecked aircraft. In a bizarre way, it gave us a lot of confidence.”

There’s a broader lesson from the Bedfordshire incident that Daniels touches on when he complains that “there’s an awful lot of people talking about doing things,” rather than conducting tests and learning from mistakes. The logistics industry needs to have patience, Daniels says. “We’re going to get there, but it takes time.”

That’s easier said than done. “At the moment, questions about airships are largely hypothetical,” said Jamie Evans, sales manager for the energy division of Chapman Freeborn. “As most designs are only at the prototype stage, the practical benefits to the air cargo market are still unclear.”

Evans has talked with his clients about airships, and they have expressed interest in using them at a much more localized level – “for example moving a structure into its final position at a project site, but only over a very short distance,” Evans said. “In this way, they would supplement rather than replace existing forms of air transport.”

Charter brokers such as Chapman Freeborn are the prime market for airships. Brokers provide the sort of lift that oil and gas companies rely on, and if airships are going to take off, they will need to win over people like Evans. In the meantime, airships aren’t in commercial logistics use yet, meaning that potential customers are forced to take companies like Hybrid Air Vehicles at their word.

So why should logistics companies invest up to $50 million by Daniel’s early estimates in an aircraft that is most famous for going down in flames over a New Jersey airfield 80 years ago? There are immediate and longer-term reasons, according to airship proponents, and underlying all of them is a fundamental economic advantage that airships have over pretty much every other mode of transportation.

Lewis King

September 7, 2017