The Forum for the Future, a green think-tank, recently proposed a low-carbon form of transport that, it posited, by 2022 would be running a solar-powered service from London to New York in 20 hours. The more stately pace would be counter-balanced not only by a carbon footprint 90% that of a jet, but by open-plan office space, gyms and all-round views. It would be a return to the elegance of travel of the luxury liner’s heyday. Indeed, it would not even be a radically new idea: the journey would be conducted by airship.
To some that may seem a rather ambitious timeline. Airships – which have a rigid internal structure, unlike a blimp – have been blighted with public misconceptions as to their safety ever since the Hindenburg disaster a century ago this year. However it should be noted that by the time the Hindenburg exploded, Zeppelin, its owner, had been running a successful, incident-free transatlantic operation for nearly a decade.
Rather, the timeline is arguably not short enough. The return of the airship is already set for take-off: the industry may be a fledgling one, with no operators established or airship ports built, but some 60 airships have been launched for various operations around the world over the last 20 years. One company, Skycruise, based in Switzerland, already runs a passenger service and is, investment-allowing, planning one connecting cities across Europe. The name on the side of its craft? Zeppelin.
Indeed, Zeppelin, now Zeppelin NT, is one of the companies at the forefront of the airship revival and is expected to launch its own first commercial flights next year, in its 85m-long NT14, a larger, passenger-carrying version of its NT07, which is already in production and being sold around the world.
Zeppelin may be the most famous name, but it is not alone in developing LTA (that’s Lighter Than Air) craft. In the US, the American Blimp Corp and ABC Lightship, and in the UK the Advanced Technology Group and Airship Industries are among those companies developing airships. And not just for passenger flight, but tourism (imagine an African safari by airship), scientific experimentation, mine-sweeping, coastguard work, surveillance, as flying cranes, mobile phone antennae and even satellite deployment or anti-missile systems. These last two are currently being worked on by Japan Aerospace and Lockheed-Martin respectively. Most projects seek to utilise the airship’s ability to stay in the air for up to 24 hours, travel long distances inexpensively and, like helicopters, dock in remote spots – making them ideal for emergency or disaster relief. With already congested roads and sea lanes, freight transport would be a key market.
‘There has been a giggle factor with airships, but that was before people realised there were real duties that airships could perform that no other kind of craft can,’ comments Arnold Nayler of the Airship Association. ‘When a real commercial venture gets underway, there will be massive public interest. There’s so much bubbling away.’
Many of the new craft employ advances brought to airship design only over recent years: not only new shapes – one, the SkyCat, a flying wing, is technically a blimp but will be able to land on water – but solar arrays, super-strong fabrics and, crucially for commercial success, lightweight propulsion units (because the lighter the ship, the bigger it and its payload can be). They are all perfectly safe, using cells filled not with hydrogen but with heavier yet inflammable helium.
In fact, one stumbling block in the future of airship flight may be the supply of helium. Even the Hindenburg’s makers knew it was the safest gas to use, but, while new natural gas fields with a helium output are being discovered, for the moment the planet only has two, both in the US. It was the hoarding of helium due to political tensions of the time that forced Zeppelin to use hydrogen. The other is the need for an extensive ground crew. In flight, an airship is controlled just like an aeroplane, by manipulating lift through air flow. But landing, when slow speeds mean a lack of aerodynamic control, is another matter. People on the ground, clinging to ropes, have to provide the brakes.
But these are teething troubles. Certainly, aside from a keen business opportunity and a major ecological benefit, the renaissance of the airship may also offer something more intangible: the return of that romanticism found in the flights of early airline travel but which economy seats and budget airlines have diminished. To view the ground from 6,000ft or to see an airship pass overhead at such an altitude will be a spectacle for passengers and the earth-bound alike. It was a feeling that was not lost on those who experienced those early Zeppelin flights. Gerhard Hauptmann, one of Germany’s literary lights of the era, even immortalised airships in verse. ‘This ship of gods, which silver-gleaming marries the mist of the air. Let this symbol rise again.’