Why blimps and airships died out – and how they might make a comeback

Could this be the future of air travel? Image: Aeroscraft.

Many years ago, long before the era of massive international airports, online ticketing agencies, and pesky pre-boarding security inspections, the airship was going to be the future.

Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out. Today’s skies are ruled by jumbo jets, helicopters, and the occasional drone or two. But a recent invention may help these long forgotten flying machines to reclaim their rightful place in aviation history – or at least carve out a niche.

“Airship” is a term for all motorised lighter-than-air craft, including blimps (which have inflatable air compartments) and zeppelins (which have rigid ones). They first came into existence after the development of the internal combustion engine, though a few daring aviators tried to pilot airships powered by steam engines. The first modern airship, the Zeppelin LZ1, took flight in 1900 – three years before the Wright Brothers made their famous flight.

Due to their relative cost effectiveness and longer range, airships were seen as the more attractive form of air travel in the early 20th century. They also played a key role as military aircraft, and were used for bombings in World War I. By the 1930s, luxury airships were whisking well-to-do passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, and were considered a technological marvel. They even had an influence on the urban landscape; it’s rumoured that the spire of the Empire State Building was designed to be converted into an airship dock.

But all that came crashing down with the infamous explosion that destroyed the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. During a landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the hydrogen-filed craft exploded in a massive fireball. The cause of the fire is still unknown today.

It wasn’t the deadliest airship disaster – that honour goes to the British-built R101, which crashed in France in 1930 – but it was perhaps the most dramatic, and even though the majority of the Hindenburg’s passengers survived, airship travel became an instant pariah. It seems likely that airships would have been phased out anyway due to improvements in airplane technology which allowed for much shorter travel times – but the Hindenburg disaster ended the era of passenger airships virtually overnight.

The R101, moored at Cardington, Bedfordshire, 1929. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, the use of airships has been extremely limited, as technological advances allowed airplanes and helicopters to dominate aviation. Though blimps played a useful surveillance role in World War II, airships today are mostly used for overhead photography at sports events, and as massive flying billboards. Today, the Van Wagner group, an airship organisation, estimates that there are only 25 blimps currently operating around the world; there are even fewer zeppelins.

But all this is about to change, if Igor Pasternak has his way. As a young man growing up in Ukraine, Pasternak’s love of airships led him to study engineering in search of the latest breakthrough in zeppelin technology. That breakthrough would ultimately come in the form of the COSH system, though only after he emigrated to California in the early 90s to escape a post-Cold War economic crash.

The COSH – Control of Static Heaviness – system works by rapidly compressing helium into storage tanks, making the airship heavier than air. While conventional airships take on air to descend, they must still dedicate most of the space in the helium envelope to actually storing the helium itself. That makes the landing process more difficult and dangerous, and means they can only land at larger landing areas much larger than the size of the airships themselves, and that come with specialized ground teams.

By contrast, the COSH system allows much more of the envelope to be emptied of helium during landing, making the airship much heavier. This could potentially allow airships to land on any flat area large enough for them to enter without the need for ground teams, increasing versatility and reducing costs.

This ability won’t do much to shake up passenger airlines, since airships will still be considerably slower. But Pasternak’s company, Worldwide Aeros Corp., is hoping its new airship will bring major changes to freight shipping.

It’s currently working on a prototype of the Aeroscraft, a new airship capable of hauling up to 66 tons, with a cruising speed of 120 knots and a range of over 5,000 miles; there are plans, too, for a larger version that can haul 250 tons. It will also be roughly three times as fuel efficient as shipping in airplanes. While it’ll still be less efficient than land or sea shipping, company representatives are hoping its landing capabilities will give it an advantage in hauling cargo to remote areas with little infrastructure.

“The Aeroscraft will be a breakthrough for cargo shipping, filling an important gap between current air shipping and land-based delivery,” says Aeros representative John Kiehle. “Since it will be so easy to land, it will also be able to provide needed assistance in disaster relief situations, where existing infrastructure is knocked out.”

And though it won’t bring major changes to passenger air travel, Kiehle says that the airship may have some limited passenger applications. “It can serve as a sort of airborne cruise ship for tourist trips, as well as potentially serving more practical passenger routes in rural areas,” he says.

An artists impression of the craft leaving its hanger. Image: Aeroscraft.

Aeroscraft has hit a few snags in the development process. Pasternak initially secured funding from the US military for an airship project using the COSH system in 2005. This was later cut, though the military continued funding the group in other projects, allowing them to move forward with a prototype.

Then, in October 2013, a section of the roof of the hangar where the partially completed Aeroscraft prototype was housed collapsed, damaging the airship beyond repair. After the crash, Pasternak told the Los Angeles Times that the destruction of the Aeroscraft, his lifelong dream, was “more than disappointing”. Aeros Corp. is currently in the process of dismantling the craft to build a new one, but no one can deny that the accident has been a major setback for the company.

And even if the testing phase goes smoothly, the Aeroscraft may still face several challenges when it enters the market. A New York Times article about Aeros cites concerns from transportation analyst Richard Aboulafa, who points out the difficulty new air vehicles have in entering the market. In addition, he notes that most of the Aeroscraft’s shipments of exotic cargo to remote locations will be one way, resulting in many empty trips, and higher operating costs.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the cost of fuel. Airships (or at least, the non-exploding variety) require large amounts of helium, a rare substance, which can cost upwards of US $100,000 for one trip. In 2012, rising helium costs were enough to bankrupt a tourist airship company in Northern California.

Some scientists even believe that, unlike many resources, helium could one day actually run out: partly because it’s light enough to escape the earth’s gravity well, but mostly because it’s uneconomic to harvest the stuff once it’s escaped into the atmosphere. All this raises questions about whether a form of transport dependent on it could ever, well, get off the ground.

But Pasternak and his team remain optimistic. Without any further issues, the Aeroscraft will be up for certification by the FAA in 2017. After that, it’ll be up to the market to decide if there’s a place for this new airship.  It might not bring back the glory days of transatlantic zeppelins – but it might at least prove that airships can be more than floating billboards.

 
 
 
 

“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.


As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.