A new shape may soon be appearing in African skies. The latest generation of airship is about to enter service and the continent is in the sights of one of the first companies to operate the type. Alan Dron reports.
It is 80 years since the prospect of huge airships criss-crossing the globe died. A series of fiery crashes, caused by the use of highly flammable hydrogen to provide the vast vessels with the necessary lift, showed the concept was too dangerous. Fixed-wing aircraft ruled the airways from the end of the Second World War.
Since then, there have been periodic attempts to revive airships, but most have foundered. In the 1970s and 80s the Goodyear Blimp appeared over cities, mainly as an airborne advertising hoarding or filming platform. Zeppelin, the most famous name in airships, still has a presence in southern Germany, taking tourists for short scenic trips.
The closest a new-generation airship has come to entering service was another German company, CargoLifter, which proposed a vessel capable of lifting 160 tonnes. This got well down the road towards commercial service in the early years of this century, but eventually ran out of money before production versions could be built.
Now, however, two new-generation vehicles, known as hybrid airships, are about to become a reality. US manufacturer Lockheed Martin is pushing ahead with Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certification for a successor to its P-791 prototype, which first flew eight years ago. And in the UK, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is starting flight tests this year with its Airlander 10.
The team behind Airlander reckons that Africa is an ideal region for the vessel.
The need to deliver heavy or bulky equipment long distances in areas that lack road infrastructure could be tailor-made for an airship, it believes.
Curiosity has certainly been aroused in Africa: “We’ve had genuine interest from both governments and private companies,” said Chris Daniels, HAV’s head of partnerships and communications. That interest has yet to be translated into solid orders but the team is hopeful that these will materialise.
There are three specific roles for which HAV sees Airlander as being particularly suitable:
- Border monitoring and surveillance, particularly in North Africa, where there are large expanses of border that are largely unmonitored.
- Transport in the east-west sub-Saharan corridor: “Africa tends to operate on a north-south axis and not to work very well from east to west,” said Daniels. “Djibouti is putting in a deep sea port. It’s perfectly located to get cargo to places like Juba [in South Sudan], but there’s no sensible way of getting heavy trucks across those roads from the emerging deep sea ports around the coast to the interior.”
- The mining, oil and gas industries require heavy, bulky loads to be moved to work sites that are frequently remote. Although the current rock-bottom price of commodities has depressed this sector, it will return once prices start to recover. “That’s a big industry for us,” said Daniels. There’s a lot of lucrative material in the ground and, typically, it’s very difficult to get items to and from sites.”
Airlander has its origins in a US Army programme for a long-endurance, multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV), which was intended to provide a persistent surveillance presence, particularly over areas such as Afghanistan.
HAV teamed with US defence major, Northrop Grumman, to develop the LEMV concept and the aircraft first flew in August 2012.
LEMV was terminated in 2013 as part of US defence budget cuts. The programme was scrapped after the US had spent some $150 million on it, but HAV was able to buy back the Airlander 10 vehicle for a fraction of that amount.
Returned to the UK, the Airlander 10 underwent almost a year of ‘return to flight’ work before starting ground testing. HAV is targeting 2019 for certification of the vehicle’s production version, following a crash on an early test flight.
After some redesign a successful flight of the Airlander 10 took place in May marking the return to the skies of the world’s largest aircraft.
“It was truly amazing to be back in the air. I loved every minute of the flight and the Airlander itself handled superbly. I am eager to get back into the cockpit and take her flying again,” said chief test pilot, Dave Burns.
Now back in the air, once it has undertaken some 200 hours of flight tests in coming months, HAV is keen to start demonstration flights for potential customers.
Orders for between two and four vehicles would be enough to get the vehicle into production and HAV hopes to start production next year. “We have a genuine pipeline of prospects with proper, credible, government-backed purchasers,” said HAV CEO Stephen McGlennan. “Hopefully, we’ll begin to announce those in the next few months.”
Dubai company Airships Arabia plans to operate both HAV and Lockheed Martin vessels by the end of the decade in several roles, including tourism and cargo.
The US craft will be three times the size of the P-791 prototype and have a payload of 21 tonnes, plus room for 19 passengers in the cabin beneath the hull.
The UK Airlander 10 has a payload capacity of 10 tonnes but room for up to 48 passengers and HAV has plans for a larger AL50 version, with a payload of up to six standard ISO containers, which will rapidly follow on from the initial model.
Airships Arabia CEO Gregory Gottlieb believes that a potential use for the craft would be the shipping of perishables, such as the transport of flowers from east Africa to Dubai, where there is a well-established flower distribution centre. This work is typically undertaken by Boeing 747s, but “a 747 bulks out before it weighs out and we wouldn’t. We could pick up a very large quantity both internally or externally.”
Airships Arabia’s initial analysis suggests that the flight from Africa to the Gulf could be accomplished in 24 hours – slower than a jet freighter, but at a fraction of the cost.
Airships Arabia would aim not to be a direct competitor with traditional freight or passenger services but, in the early years at least, “to do things that can’t easily be done by current methodology”.
The company is discussing potential partnerships with companies in the Gulf, North Africa and East Africa. (africanaerospace, photo: Airlander)