Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 13 seconds.
If someone told you that they were reviving the airship as a mode of international travel, you’d say they were crazy. In fact, if you looked up and saw one in the sky, you’d probably think you had stepped onto the set of the latest fantasy movie, which is really the only place we see them today. However, a collision of factors driven by the pandemic means the idea of bringing back these delightful dirigibles might not be so far fetched.
The lockdown has clearly illustrated the air and noise pollution benefits of fewer cars and planes. And even before the pandemic struck, the lobby for reducing global warming led by the direct action group Extinction Rebellion – the name says it all – was becoming increasingly vocal to highlight the recklessness of not heeding the warning signs.
Indeed, the planet and Mother Nature does seem to have started fighting back and the pandemic could be the trump card – no, not that Trump! Without deforestation, a major cause of global warming, it’s doubtful whether anyone would have contracted COVID-19. Stemming from Wuhan’s wet wildlife markets, many of the rare species we are increasingly coming into contact with as the forests fall are passing on diseases new to humans like the current virus. Then from a clean air perspective, it was found recently that pollution actively helps to spread the virus.
Although the rapid rise of the electric car looks set to significantly reduce pollution levels in cities, air travel continues to kick out carbon into the atmosphere. Or rather it did until the pandemic struck. Now we have a situation with airlines on their knees and the oil industry in disarray. We may be seeing some signs of recovery as the lockdown loosens and some people jet off once again on their holidays, but could the travel and fossil fuel industries survive more virus spikes and the associated lockdowns, which are highly likely?
All these factors converge to make this the perfect time to bring back one of the most beguiling, graceful and romantic forms of transport that ever graced the planet. “Why turn to the airship? Because it’s about as green as global travel gets,” said Alastair Lawson, chair of the Airship Heritage Trust, which is partnering with Bedford Creative Arts and the Higgins Bedford on a major community place-making art project called Airship Dreams marking the 90th anniversary of the final flight of the R101 and celebrating the Golden Age of the Airship in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Lighter-than-air (LTA) flight is quiet and uses less fuel during a long journey than planes do just taking off,” explained Lawson. “Furthermore, current projects by the likes of hybrid air vehicles are close to developing a carbon neutral version that can fly non-stop for over 70 hours. Then there’s the fact that airships don’t need a runway to launch as they ascend from a mast. This has huge implications in changing the way we fly, as you don’t need vast airports anymore, with the congestion and crowds they attract. Airships could bring global travel to everyone’s doorstep.”
But what would it be like travelling on an airship? Surely it couldn’t compare to first class on a jumbo jet? And just how long would a long-haul airship trip take in comparison? Lawson has the answers…
“The R101 was built to fly people in luxury across the globe,” he said. “At this time, an airship could reach Australia in five days with just three or four short stops, attaining speeds of 80 miles per hour in still air and up to 130 miles per hour under the right wind conditions. During the 1920s, Britain was the global leader in airship development, with the Government seeing the technology as a way to connect the Commonwealth. Germany was close behind and created the Hindenburg, a luxury passenger airship that was the Concorde of its day, regularly flying across the Atlantic to New York.”
Green, luxurious, fast and convenient, what more could you ask? Oh wait. What’s that? There appears to be an elephant in the room going by the name of safety. Tragically, the final fight of the R101 on Oct. 4, 1930 ended in disaster with the airship crashing in France on the way to India, with most of the 54 passengers lost. The incident together with the Great Depression led to the end of airship development in the U.K. Seven years later the Hindenburg met a similar fate consigning the airship to the history books and the pages of ripping yarns. So would safety remain an issue in the 21st century? Not according to Lawson.
“The original airships used highly flammable hydrogen for buoyancy, which today this has been replaced by non-flammable helium extinguishing the fire threat,” he explained.
Giles Camplin, chair of the Airship Association, believes it was misguided to discontinue airship development back in the 1930s, claiming they generally had a strong safety record.
“Some 1,200 airships have been built since the first attempt in 1784 and many have impressive safety records,” he explained. “Up until 1933, for example, the Graf Zeppelin (LZ127) made 290 flights covering 330,000 miles, safely carrying 8,000 passengers along with 55 tons of mail and freight.”
Although today the LTA industry lies “virtually dormant” according to Bruce Blake, who has been working on airship projects since the 1970s, he said: “There is no doubt that today’s operations are safe, since all types are compliant with airworthiness and operating rules.” Blake cites the Zeppelin NT and Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander 10 as two of the better modern examples.
The airship would also have a use beyond luxury global travel.
“They are especially good at surveillance at sea,” said Camplin. “And could play a big role in activities such as air/sea rescue, anti-piracy and anti-smuggling, coast guard patrols, fisheries protection and more.”
He also considers airships ideal for a range of leisure and tourism pursuits, such as whale watching and safaris, as they would not disturb wildlife. And this would potentially be just the start, because, as Blake is keen to point out, “the technology of modern buoyant aircraft,” as he described the airship, “remains ‘rooted’ in infancy.”
“As an industry, it could easily grow significantly,” he said. “And we are seeing more and more funding opportunities from ‘angel investors’ and venture capital syndicates, plus some real government incentives to encourage innovation.”
“In the 1930s, Britain was a world-leader in LTA technology,” reminisced Camplin. Quickly returning to the present, he continues: “Today, we have stronger materials, better bonding techniques, faster and more reliable means of making complex calculations, computer modelling and a greater understanding and means of monitoring meteorological phenomena. With the right support and investment, Britain would be perfectly placed to pick up where it left off and lead the world again in establishing airships as a highly useful part of transport infrastructure.”
And an environmentally friendly one at that. So could we be entering a new era of the airship driven by environmentalism and further fuelled by the pandemic? It would certainly help prevent climate change and our over reliance on fossil fuels. Or might this just be another Airship Dream? Let’s hope not.