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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).