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Airships: Potential PoDs 6 - Rebirth

By Andy Cooke

To get a world where airships remain as a viable form of transport, the earlier the PoD, the better.

We've looked at early invention of the airship in order to have it more deeply established as a form of transport when the aeroplane came along.

We've looked at the possibility that the evolution of the airship would not be disrupted and distorted by World War I, while that of the aeroplane was accelerated and boosted.

And we looked at the possibility that the Imperial Airship Scheme could have been successful and avoided the pin-point PoD that was the catastrophe of the R101 crash.

Following those, however, the existence of the airship becomes harder and harder to justify. The loss of the Hindenberg was one of the final possible points where we could have turned back, even though we were quite a way down the road to airship-near-extinction already. It took an existing trend and boosted it beyond sight - the crash of the Hindenberg is still very much in the public mindspace, even eighty years after it happened.

After this, you would need a near-unpredictable effort by an eccentric tycoon who preserved/renewed airship travel just enough that they might be useful in World War II.

Apart from that, the chances of the airship surviving have headed downhill faster than an Olympic ski-racer who urgently needs the bathroom. All that remains is to look at the faint possibilities of a reinvention of the airship following World War II.

I'll divide this into three eras, each about one human generation: Post-War (from the end of the war to the 1970), the Seventies and Eighties, and 1990 onwards. (I will resist referring to these as "Baby-Blimpers", "Generation X-ships", and "Millenieppelins")


From 1945 to 1970: This was the era of aeronautical experimentation. Fast jets, rocket-assisted aircraft, the first passenger jets, the first widebodies, and even Concorde. It would have been difficult for airships to get much of a look-in, although the spirit of experimentalism of the time.

Max Pruss (Captain of the Hindenburg) tried to push for a revival of airships at the time, but got very little traction and died in 1960 without seeing them.

Non-rigid blimps still remained, but were largely used for public relations (such as by Goodyear) and advertising. Private ventures were attempted (such as the British Bournemouth in 1951, but could not answer the question: "What is it good for?" Any answer suffered in comparison to the range and speed of the heavier-than-air aeroplane, which also had a full and comprehensive infrastructure and support system around it.

Abortive attempts included the Aereon III - a bizarre-looking three-hulled rigid design from 1965, with the structures connecting the three hulls intended to provide lift like wings (a "hybrid" design). I say "intended", as it never flew, being destroyed by accident in a taxi-test in 1966 (with no fatalities). It was intended to be the prototype for future, far larger, designs.

It was succeeded by the Aereon 26 - a mash-up of aeroplane and airship, which flew successfully in 1971, but failed to receive funding for a follow-up.

To exercise a PoD in the immediate Post-War period - well, I think you've got to get Aereon or something like it funded further and have a series of spectacular aeroplane crashes. Even then, I think it'd look prohibitively unlikely.

The Seventies and Eighties

There was, possibly surprisingly, a mini-renaissance in airship design as the Seventies drew to an end (It could be argued that the early Seventies Oil Shock focused minds onto more fuel-efficient possibilities of transport). In the United Kingdom, the Airship Industries Skyship 500 was constructed and took to the skies. With ducted fan engines, two crew and eight passengers, six were built and sold, proving fairly successful.

A successor followed - the Skyship 600 - with a capacity of up to 18 passengers. Ten were built and sold, and Airship Industries had plans for new rigid airships (the R130, with a 58 tonne payload; and the R150, with 75 tonnes). The FedEx corporation were very interested, seeing them as a lower-cost alternative for shipping slower freight, but the company. When FedEx changed their mind, the plans were shelved.

Potential military airships were explored (the radar-carrying Battle Surveillance Airship System) and contracts awarded for design, but this was cut from the US military budget. A follow-on civilian airship airliner, which depended on the military design being built, was also shelved, and Airship Industries went into liquidation in 1990.

Meanwhile, the other side of the Atlantic saw some interesting designs. While the 1986 Piasecki PA-97 Helistat might look uniquely interesting in being a combination airship-and-helicopter (four helicopter chassis - complete with rotors - attached under a helium blimp to augment lift. Shocking no-one, it crashed during test flights), the all-time winners of the "what in hell is that thing?" award has to go to the 1982 AeroLift Cyclocrane (below).

In order to fully explain this aircraft would take several pages. Suffice it to say that it employs principles from airships, helicopters, and aeroplanes, and leave it at that. Other than to admire the sheer ingenuity that went into not only conceiving it and designing it, but actually building and flying it. Because, yes, it actually worked. Sadly, when defence funding dried up, so did the corporation building it and it went bust in 1990.

Shame. I'd have loved to see these things plying the sky. For entertainment value, if nothing else.

In any case, if you want to exercise a PoD in this era, I'd say that Airship Industries getting a big Defence grant from the US DoD are your best bet. They had been talking about ordering no fewer than 75 Battle Surveillance Airships - these being ordered and built and a follow-up luxury airliner carrying 100 passengers at a time in comfort and safety being built - it would probably still be a niche transport activity, but it could arguably get into that niche.

I had thought that the Oil Crisis could provoke a PoD to a greater extent, but it would have had to be far deeper and/or longer-lasting than it was in OTL to accomplish that - and not only would this have been self-defeating to the OPEC nations, it would have had far further and deeper ramifications if it (irrationally) were to occur.

The Nineties and onwards

Coming up to the present day, we can see a variety of designs attempted and (usually) discarded, a few of which actually flew.

While Airship Industries' successor company (Airship Technologies Group) initially had only very limited success in producing a couple of small non-rigid aircraft, the Zeppelin Corporation in Germany emerged phoenix-like into a new incarnation: Zeppelin New Technology (Zeppelin NT). From inception in the early Nineties, they built and sold 7 semi-rigid airships.

The Zeppelin NT carries 12-14 passengers, with a thousand kilometre range and a cruising speed of 115 km/h. Fuel efficiency is significantly better than that of a conventional aircraft - but, alas, it too has remained a mere curiosity. There has been no strong argument as to why anyone should operate one of these rather than either an aeroplane (for speed) or go by train (for economy/efficiency). The view and experience, while unique, are not nearly enough to make its case.

To be fair, they are still operational and Zeppelin NT is a going concern, but the roles of tourism, limited passenger transport, advertising and PR, and scientific measurement platforms have not been enough to break out of an extremely niche position.

Unfortunately, for airship travel to be anything other than a curiosity, airships would have to be able to carry far more than a dozen or so passengers far further than a thousand or so kilometres, but for that to be possible, the airship would need to be of a large scale. It is very difficult to leap into production of such a large-scale vehicle without proving operations with a smaller-scale one, and a smaller-scale one can never be more than a curiosity.

If, though, we return to the further activities of the successors of Airship Industries, we find a chain that takes us to a number of large-scale airships coming close to fruition, one of which would be in the R101's former hangar at RAF Cardington.

Airship Industries was succeeded by Airship Technologies, which folded and became succeeded by Airship Technologies Group, which, after building a couple of blimp designs, was succeeded by SkyCat Group, which itself went into administration merely a year later (it's tough in the airship industry, obviously). This wasn't the end, though; it was bought out by a new company called Hybrid Air vehicles, which has now been a going concern for 12 years, winning a contract with DARPA to produce an unusual, but successful, flying design.

The US Defence Industry continues to provide scope for feasible PoDs, having abortively looked for a 500-tonne-payload extra-heavy-lift airship in the Noughties ("Walrus-HULA"). That funding helped an American airship company, Aeros, survive, and continue to construct non-rigid airships and plan new rigid craft, like the Aeroscraft. A half-scale prototype, the Dragon Dream has been built and flown.

Its role is point-to-point cargo, with the ability to land in unprepared areas, using its cushion/hover feet (which also have the ability to "suck" it down to hold it into place). It remains a going concern at the moment; a PoD as late as 2010 could make a full-scale fleet possible even today. The full-scale vehicles would range from a lift of 66 tonnes and range of 5700 kilometres to a lift of 250 tonnes and range of 9,500 km.

As an aside, the ungainly landing feet do signify a very significant advance: the need for mooring masts and ground staff support for airships in the past was considerable and meant that the infrastructure to support airships would have to be bootstrapped into existence and reasonably wide-spread adoption for airships to ever break back into regular use. The ability to simply land on any conveniently open space with a firm surface is crucial to bypass this issue.

After the Walrus-HULA contract, the US DoD retained an interest in airships, letting a contract for a Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programme (I'm beginning to think that somewhere in the US DoD is someone with as much interest in airships as me...). The requirement was for "... capability to operate at six kilometres (20,000 ft) above mean sea level, a 3,000-kilometre (1,900 mi) radius of action, and a 21-day on-station availability, provide up to 16 kilowatts of electrical power for payload, be runway independent and carry several different sensors at the same time.

With this PoD, we're coming up to the near end of Alternate History into straightforward plausible present-day fiction. Two candidates for this proposal were put forward: the Lockheed Martin P-791 and the Hybrid Air Vehicles HAV-304.

Image source: Lockheed-Martin

Both used a hybrid technique that incorporated a lifting-body shape for a proportion of the cruising lift, plus a multiple hull: the P-791 having a triple hull and the HAV-304 a double hull. Despite losing the bud, the P-791 was successful and Lockheed-Martin currently hold Letters of Intent for 12 vehicles. It can lift 20 tonnes and has a range of 2600 km - with larger scale vehicles already in design.

Note that both the P-791 and the HAV-304 (below) have similar casual landing abilities to the Aeroscraft, meaning that they too could easily land on the grass at an airport, or in an airfield, or even in an open field (or an "austere forward operating base" for the military).

The HAV-304 won the contract, but the DoD cancelled it before going into production. Hybrid Air Vehicles, however, bought back the prototype for peanuts and remodelled it into the Airlander 10, which is currently housed at Cardington, in the same shed that once housed the R101.

It is nicknamed "The Flying Bum" for fairly obvious reasons...

It was involved in what was described as "the slowest crash in air history" when it crash-landed at Cardington after one of its test flights in 2016. The impact was reportedly severe enough that the co-pilot's cup of tea was spilled.

Suggested roles include Defence (loitering over a site of interest), cargo carrying as per the P-791, and luxury travel.

With a lifting capacity of 10 tonnes and a range of 7500km in cargo-lift mode, or 16-20 passengers and 3700 km in luxury travel mode, it is intended to be the smallest vehicle in their future fleet. They are exploring a larger-scale aircraft (the Airlander 50) with transatlantic range for up to 200 passengers, and also exploring full-electric capability (which is far more feasible for airships than aeroplanes).

The push towards more environmentally friendly aircraft may be coming at a perfect time for the Airlander, which could provide luxury distance air travel that, while considerably slower, would now have significantly reduced guilt-factor for air travellers to accompany the glorious views, coupled with luxury beyond that of airliners.

Impression of the luxury travel cabin on the Airlander 10 (the smaller vehicle in the Airlander fleet)

Such a transatlantic trip would resemble a very-shortened cruise ship experience, crossing the Atlantic in under two days (under one day for London to New York)... but it remains to be seen if that niche is finally ready for public consumption or if, as before, it will fall between the two stools of the aeroplane and the cruise ship once again.

In short, PoDs for the post-Nineties would most likely be simply that the Defence Industry does not cancel its contracts or that one or more of the above built airships breaks through. In fact, it is not implausible for that to happen now.

It may be that the increased climate awareness will finally give the airship its big break once again, but on past history, a freak incident will, inevitably, somehow derail it once again.

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Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP