World’s largest aircraft prepares for flight

Avatar for Skies MagazineBy Skies Magazine | June 16, 2014

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 56 seconds.

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is constructing the Airlander 10 hybrid aircraft prototype that is scheduled to go into production later in 2015. It is being built in the original R101 Airship Shed in Cardington, U.K. The Airlander 10 is the world’s largest aircraft at a length at 92 metres (302 feet), with a volume of 38,000 cubic metres (1,340,000 cubic feet). In comparison, the Airbus A380 is 73 metres (239 feet) long.

The unique aspect of the Airlander 10 as a prototype aircraft is that it has already flown. It was built as the platform for the U.S. Army LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle) project. It was successfully flown in August 2012 in Lakehurst, N.J.; however, the LEMV project was a victim of the sequestration cuts.

The LEMV platform was purchased from the U.S. Army and repatriated to the U.K., where the envelope was re-inflated in February 2014. It is now being re-configured back to a cargo role. See the BBC video at

Some believe this is the launch of a revolutionary new style of aircraft. Before fixed-wing technology became the focus during the Second World War, buoyant aircraft or “airships” dominated aviation. Long before the Wright brothers, airships, balloons, and blimps were the means of getting into the air.

The last large airships operated by the U.S. Navy in anti-submarine maritime patrol were retired in 1962. Nevertheless, “airheads” around the world continue to promote the use of buoyancy for lift. Interest has increased over the last 20 years, with new technologies in materials, power plants and digital controls adding to the airship’s efficiency, while overcoming challenges like large ground crews.

What is the “new technology” in the Airlander? Why is it called a “hybrid” aircraft? There are three ways to get a mass into the air. Aerostatic lift or buoyancy operates by the same physics as a ship on water (or submarine). Aerodynamic lift is generated by the pressure difference over an air foil to “suck” the craft into the air. And, an aircraft can generate thrust vectored to “push” it into the air—for instance, a rocket or a Harrier jet, or even a helicopter. Traditional airships and fixed-wing aircraft have relied on one means of lift, but the Airlander uses all three. Technically, it is not a lighter-than-air “airship,” as it remains slightly heavier than air even when full of helium. It requires vectored thrust and aerodynamic lift to get its payload into the air.

The concept was developed by airship pioneer and HAV founder, Roger Munk. While any airship generates some aerodynamic lift from forward motion, Munk’s idea was to place two cylindrical “airships” side by side to make a lifting body, a flying wing. Tragically, he died prematurely before LEMV’s flight proved his concept.

So why should we care about HAV’s Airlander hybrid aircraft? In a word, cost. The tonne-kilometre cost to move a payload with fixed-wing aircraft is about eight times that of a highway semi, which in turn is twice as much as a rail car which is twice as much as a ship. But what do you do when there is no waterway/port, or railway or highway? There is no choice but to use an aircraft. So why does an aircraft cost so much? The biggest factor is energy cost; that is, fuel. More than half of the energy to move an aircraft is spent getting the empty weight into the air. Now, what if you could get the aircraft into the air for “free,” so that the only cost was moving the payload from A to B? That is what an airship does.

Even a relatively small airship like the Airlander 10 projects tonne-kilometre costs half that of an equivalent payload fixed-wing aircraft. And larger airships increase in efficiency, with 200 tonne capacity ships promising tonne-kilometre costs competitive to truck or even train. Vast areas of Canada cannot be reached by surface transportation, even with short seasonal options. Today, the development of our natural resources requires finding very rich deposits, like the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, but smaller deposits stay in the ground. How much more might become economical to develop if we could reduce transport costs by half or better?

So, why hasn’t anyone done it? We are a very risk-adverse world. No one is going to put up the $100 million or more to develop a large airship based on theory and paper designs, or even scaled proof of concept craft like Lockheed’s P-791. Enter the U.S. Army. The military has long been a predominant source of technology development. The Army needed a high altitude persistent surveillance ship, closer than a satellite and with better range than a drone. The long endurance multi-intelligence vehicle was to stay on station for 21 days at 20,000 feet over Kandahar, Afghanistan. Rather than real time tactical intelligence with a drone, the LEMV would see and record everything. Tracing back from an IED explosion, to tracking the bomb placement, its transport and manufacture, to special forces raiding the factory, could be a matter of minutes.

Northrop Grumman was awarded the $500 million contract to supply two LEMVs. The company contracted HAV to provide the platform. The LEMV flew successfully from Lakehurst Naval Air Station in August 2012, but it was caught in the U.S. sequestration process, and the program was cancelled four months later.

It took most of 2013, but HAV was able to purchase the platform from the U.S. Army and bring it back to the U.K. While HAV had built it, it was still U.S. military equipment that required State Department approval to “export” it, even back to where it was built. HAV is now reassembling the platform and re-configuring it for the transport role as the Airlander 10. First flight—or rather its first flight as the Airlander 10—is planned for later this year. It will be used as the prototype towards obtaining a type certificate to begin manufacturing.

Meanwhile, detailed design is being done for the Airlander 50; this is the size needed from an economic perspective to make many resource development projects feasible. The prototype will obtain an experimental certificate that will then permit its use in technology demonstration projects, initially in Europe. It will come to North America later in 2015 through spring 2016, before continuing to Brazil for the Olympics. A series of technology demonstration projects are being planned for Northern Manitoba in support of construction and resource development, as well as military/civil missions. If the real hold-up to purchases with deposits has been the lack of “tires to kick,” the Airlander 10 will provide that reality.

How can we judge credibility? How do we decide if they can actually do it? That one is easy. They already did it, over Lakehurst in August 2012.

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