The world’s largest aircraft, the Airlander blimp, has been filled with helium to allow it to float for the first time in its Return to Flight programme.
On Saturday, the vehicle lifted from the ground and was ‘walked’ the entire 248 metre length of the Bedfordshire hangar in which it resides.
The operation involved four forklift trucks, one at each corner of the Airlander, each carrying a two-tonne block of cement with a restraining rope attached moving in unison.
During the next two months, the airship will be fitted with engines, fins and a mission module prior to a series of ground tests that will take place inside and outside the hangar in early 2016.
The airship from Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is more than 90 metres long and will be capable of staying in the air for several days. It was originally procured by the US military to perform communication and survey roles, although the contract was later cancelled following US budget cuts.
HAV’s technical director, Mike Durham, said, “Seeing the Airlander come to life and floating was simply breathtaking. This is a key moment for the UK’s aerospace industry in getting this unique aircraft ready for flight.”
Airlanders are recognised for being low noise, low pollution and environmentally friendly. They also have ultra-long endurance and a point-to-point cargo-carrying capacity.
The vehicles are capable of both taking off and landing vertically and can operate from a range of remote environments including water, desert, ice and fields.
The market for vehicles of this type has been independently valued at $50bn globally and HAV expects that its Airlanders will generate 1,800 new jobs in the UK in the next five years.
They are being mooted as useful for any long-endurance airborne tasks such as coastguard duties, military and civil surveillance, filming and academic research.
The company has secured over £60m of customer funding for its Airlanders, more than £6m of grants and over £12m in equity funding.
In March, HAV launched an equity crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds to get its Airlander 10 off the ground.