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Our trip was continually blighted by the limitations of the airship. It was true the speed and stability of the Skyship made it an ideal platform for our science — certainly more suited than the higher speeds of an aircraft or the greater vibration of a helicopter. Yet despite being capable on paper of staying aloft for more than 24 hours without refuelling, no single flight we made in the blimp during our month-long voyage was ever longer than a few hours and some were cut as short as 20 minutes.

We were regularly halted and diverted from our route by unfavourable weather, contrary winds, clouds, heat, cold or altitude. Perhaps the most restrictive factor of all was the ability of our ground crew to keep up.

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As a lighter-than-air craft, the airship cannot land unassisted. The Skyship needs a ground crew of at least 14 to land it safely. It is then secured to a mobile mast raised on the back of a truck. This means the airship can only ever travel as fast and as far as its ground crew and mast.

The ground crew was delayed by traffic or mishap more than once during our journey, leaving us helplessly circling above an airfield waiting for them. Once attached to the mast, the airship is at its most vulnerable. Deteriorating weather and winds can place huge strains on its structure. Rather than sailing across the continent in a graceful ship of the skies, our journey felt more like limping erratically across the States with a wildly temperamental white whale. My experience made it easy to understand why airships have never become a mainstream form of transport.

Ever since Henri Giffard flew a steam-powered dirigible a distance of 17 miles 27km in , airships have been enthusiastically pursued as the solution of the future in many functions. Notably, a high proportion of these quests have ended unceremoniously in costly, and often fatal, failure. At the turn of the 20th century, airships were touted as the ideal conveyance for Polar travel and, indeed, the Italian semi-rigid airship Norge flew over the North Pole in — but later flights ended in tragedy.

World War One: How the German Zeppelin wrought terror - BBC News

During the First World War, airships were trialled extensively in many military applications by both sides but, ultimately, their vulnerability led to development being abandoned in favour of aeroplanes. Between wars, the Empire State Building in New York was completed with a dirigible mooring mast forming its now famous spire in anticipation of regular Zeppelin trans-Atlantic passenger services.

The scheme never materialised due to safety concerns. The US military were the only armed forces to make use of airships in the Second World War, establishing a programme that included convoy support, surveillance and cargo transport. The programme was continued by the US Navy after the war, with airships forming part of the early warning systems of the Cold War, but was shut down in The s were the heyday of modern airships, as Goodyear built its famous blimps that floated above stadiums and major events across the world, employed as filming platforms, advertising space and for occasional passenger pleasure flights.

The advent of drones, which are now more commonly used to film aerial shots, dealt the final death blow. Today there are fewer than 10 commercial airships flying worldwide and contracts are scarce. Having failed to find its forte in everything from border patrols to whale watching, it would seem the age of the airship is decisively dead.

Helium Dreams

Yet, search the internet today and you will find dozens of concept designs for space-age dirigibles, from behemoth transporters shaped like static manatees, to planetary orbiters resembling airborne spinning tops. Why, seemingly against all reason, does the aviation world refuse to give up on airships? Peter Buckley is one of the most experienced airship pilots in the world, having accumulated more than 22, hours in command.

He is acutely aware of the deficiencies and complexity of airship design, but is equally confident it would be a mistake to ignore advantages promised by dirigibles.

The Graf Zeppelin, Hindenburg, U.S. Navy Airships, and other Dirigibles

In the past, the only people who could afford to invest in airship design were the military. No one in commercial industries would put in that kind of money unless it was a proven concept and shown to work, even if they could see the potential. Given the failure of successive attempts to make airships profitable, it could be argued that investors are right to be cautious.

Why the Return of the Airship Makes More Sense Than Ever

The company specialises in hybrid airships, craft that are lighter-than-air, but also benefit from aerodynamic lift. To many, this inauspicious start might be a sure sign that the Airlander is doomed to the familiar dirigible fate but Mike Durham, technical director at HAV, believes the hybrid nature of Airlander offers something different. Floating things create engineering problems.

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They are susceptible to wind shifts and weather. We are effectively flying. It gains most of its buoyancy from the helium filling its 38,m3 envelope, but the elliptical cross-section of its hull provides 40 per cent of its lift aerodynamically. The greater control this affords when landing, combined with the thrust of its four hp turbocharged diesel vector engines, means a ground crew of just six is needed.

HAV plans to reduce this even further until the craft can land without assistance, complete with an on-board mast. We are a hybrid air vehicle. This is the future, not a resurrection of the past. What happens when you cross a blimp with a plane, and give it a few helicopter features? A lighter-than-air plimp-hybrid airship is born, according to a Seattle-based company looking for investors.

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But don't call it a plimp outright. That word is trademarked and meant to be used as an adjective, said James Egan, a Seattle-based attorney who is the CEO of Egan Airships, maker of the plimp-hybrid aircraft. The idea came to Egan in childhood, as he was playing with helium balloons and balsa-wood gliders.

He noticed that these wooden gliders had a slower descent when he tied helium balloons to the planes' wings and tails. He kept his eye on emerging technologies, such as the Boeing Dreamliner plane, which uses lightweight carbon-fiber composites to make aircraft lighter and more fuel-efficient. Finally, he and his twin brother, Joel, approached Daniel Raymer, an engineer who agreed to take their concept of a half-helium-filled aircraft and turn it into a flyable design.

The helium in the blimp part of the plimp-hybrid aircraft is key, Egan said. The plimp-hybrid airship is actually faster and safer than a blimp, which has to offgas during unpowered descent, Egan said.


The newly designed airships are also different than the Hindenburg — the airship that met a fiery end when its lighter-than-air hydrogen gas leaked and mixed with oxygen, making a flammable mixture that quickly ignited. In contrast, the plimp aircraft uses helium, which isn't flammable. When the Model J is full — carrying the aforementioned 2, lbs.

When empty for instance, when acting as a flying billboard , it can travel a whopping 1, miles about 2, km , a distance equal to a trip from Los Angeles to Dallas. But whether or not it's occupied, the Model J will take off in the same way: vertically, like a helicopter. To land, the pilot would reduce the power, allowing the Model J to descend and slow down.