Friday, February 01, 2013

Gone Forever - Once Again

P1160271a This last autumn, Airship Ventures ceased operations from their south San Francisco Bay area base. Their one-of-a-kind Zeppelin NT airship was dismantled and shipped back to German from whence it was built. The firm cited, in their reasons for ceasing operation, lack of consistent corporate support. Instead of being funded by proceeds derived from corporate branding (which was one of the firm’s primary goals in their business model), the semi-rigid airship was used primarily for site-seeing ventures, paid for by private individuals whose cost per flight was high enough to warrant the image of an exorbitant luxury rendezvous for the wealthy, yet never generating the kinds of revenue required for long-term sustainability.

Once again in their long, troubled history, passenger airships have disappeared from the scene.

On paper and in the bright, shiny laboratories of theoretical conjecture the airship seems like a concept ideally suited to the future transportation challenges facing our technological culture. They can fly faster than a ship can sail, delivering air freight at a cost cheaper than jet aircraft, consume fuel more economically than any other form of motorized air transport and are able to float in midair without the expenditure of additional energy. They seem almost magical, as if in their employment some law of nature were being sidestepped, hinting of some improbably futuristic science-fiction brought into conventional reality.

Yet the airship has consistently failed to live up to its promise, in its 120+ year history, with the notable exception of the German Zeppelin airships, pre- and post-WWI. Those who have paid attention to airship developments over the intervening years, including yours truly, have been intermittently excited at the prospects of some new-fangled attempts at reviving the era of the great passenger airships, only to have their hopes dashed to pieces when said ventures failed to materialize.

On paper, the problem of building massive airships is a closed field, the technological problems involved being entirely solvable with today’s (not to mention yesterday’s) technology. Materials science and computerized design have advanced to the point where airships can be modeled and flown entirely in simulation, with the technical aspects of their safe operational envelope entirely understood. Their safe operation, however, will always be dependent upon a careful consideration of atmospheric conditions; airships are massive and buoyant, thus becoming one with the atmosphere.

Despite the continued legacy of spectacular historic airship wrecks, the central problem of flying airships has always been, and continues to be, one of economics. Even in the classic era of the German passenger airships the cost of airship development was underwritten by the German government, and in their formative years of development, pre-WWI, funded in large measure by the German public. It is doubtful whether, even in their heyday, passenger airships operated in the black.

Contrast this with contemporary heavier-than-air jet aircraft development, which appears, upon first glance, to at least turn a modest profit at the bare minimum. Yet one wonders how much of Boeing’s civilian airliner development costs, for instance, are shared with their more lucrative, profit-guaranteed military contract subdivision; and if perhaps the taxpayer indirectly underwrites Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner development project.

Operational costs of commercial aviation continue to rise with escalating fuel costs, labor and regulatory uncertainty and the need to upgrade the fleet every few years. Many carriers are barely turning a profit, while many more have already folded. In this troubling environment, the prospect of a successful passenger airship service seems naïve, at the very least.

Airships were flown long distances across oceans, spanning continents, in an era of the 1920s and ‘30s before rigidly enforced air traffic corridors were the norm, as they are today. Then, major storm systems were avoided by being flown round-about, in a direction to take advantage of tail winds. Now, today’s air traffic control system would require airships to stick to rigidly defined air corridors whose boundaries have little to do with the realities of weather systems, and is simply unrealistic given the airships vulnerability to winds.

And yet the dreamers (myself included) persist with their visions of behemoths floating in midair, of a more genteel and serene form of air travel, less harried and hassled; an air service for the upper classes, it would seem.

Despite their troubled past, there continue to be airship development projects in both the civilian and military sectors. Aeros is (as of this writing) finishing a novel rigid airship prototype in Tustin, California called the Pelican, while Lockheed Martin has already flow the P791 tri-hulled non-rigid hybrid airship, and recently flew (and crashed) the HALE-D high-altitude airship prototype. Several other military airship projects have been recently proposed and canceled, or came to a tragic end.

Rumors also persist, within the fringe community, of enormous secretive black triangle-configured aircraft that some insist are buoyant using lighter-than-air principles and incorporate some novel UFO-inspired propulsion system. Though these rumors are most likely false, one is reminded of the present-day helium shortage and its similarity to the carbon fiber shortage of the 1980s that was exacerbated by the materials requirements of the then-secretive stealth aircraft development programs. Sometimes there’s a grain of truth at the core of every conspiracy theory.

Throughout the 230 years of Lighter-Than-Air flight, balloons and airships have never proven themselves capable of providing the quick, expedient air travel that customers now expect. The era of week-long transoceanic voyages is passed and people demand quick travel to and from any corner of the globe. Airships are simply too slow, fly too low and are too vulnerable to the kinds of weather systems encountered in the lower troposphere.

But so what? Rocket ships have not displaced bicycles for recreational travel either, for example. So why not recreational LTA flight, like what Airship Ventures was promoting? The problem always comes down to money, it seems. Though the Zeppelin NT was the most advanced airship ever flown, and had an impeccable safety record, economics ruled the day. It was simply too expensive to operate, even with $500-per-hour passenger rates, to stay financially afloat.

But there are other flight profiles better suited to the airship’s capabilities, like surveillance and long-endurance patrols, which might help explain the recent interest by the Pentagon in LTA craft.

Perhaps there will a time in the future, after the global petroleum supply has peaked and world economies are struggling to find technological solutions to intractable problems, when lighter-than-air craft might once again ply the skies, sipping fuel and offering mankind one last opportunity to remain solvent as a technological species. The hypothetical airships of that future might not use helium for buoyancy, due to its scarcity, but some technique of safely using hydrogen could be employed, perhaps using some exotic method like nitrogen encapsulation or even a proton gas of ionized hydrogen, contained within an electrostatic field.

Or, perhaps not; it might also be possible that the era of the airship has forever passed into history, to be resurrected periodically only in the imaginations of us airship fanatics, in the form of models (like the one pictured above). But at least we can dream, for that is what airships are like, giant dream-like clouds floating in the sky, inducing the daydreamer to his fantasies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

FWIW, Joe, I'm with you here.
== Michael Höhne

7:56 PM  
Blogger Richard P said...

We need a Slow Flying Manifesto.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Joe,

You seem to have missed the one success of the decade that has the ability to transporm the industry. Hybird Air Vehicles designed and built the LEMV for the US Army, along with our partners in Northrop Grumman. We had our first successful flight in August 2012 and more are planned. We are also working hard on our next product, the AIRLANDER 50, capable of carrying 50 tonnes with CTOL and 20 tonnes with VTOL. We have combined the best of airships with that of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, flying heavier than air and offering econonomies and flexibility no other aircraft can offer. Have a look at Or email me at Regards, Hardy

6:55 AM  

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