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How coronavirus could create the perfect storm for an airship revival

Image credit: Airship Heritage Trust

Several compelling, converging factors mean a beautiful, arcadian and romantic form of flight could be on the verge of a new golden age.

When I agreed on behalf of the Airship Heritage Trust to support a new place-making art project called Airship Dreams, which on 4 October this year will mark the 90th anniversary of the final fight of the R101 airship, I never expected the initiative to become so relevant to the situation in which the world now finds itself.

Produced by Bedford Creative Arts, Airship Dreams is engaging virtually with people in Bedford where the R101 was built, and beyond, to collect stories and memorabilia from the golden age of the airship in the 1920s and 1930s for a major art installation at the Higgins Bedford gallery and museum.

In the early 1900s, Britain led airship innovation, with the Government supporting the technology to drive a strategy designed to connect the Commonwealth by air. Routes were planned to India, Australia, Canada and other countries that would have seen passengers travelling in luxury. However, the fateful crash of the R101 and the Great Depression deflated the programme, with the aeroplane taking off in its place.

Was dropping the airship misguided? I certainly think so - especially when you look at where we are today. The pandemic lockdown has opened a window on a world without road and air traffic. A quieter place with cleaner air, where nature is thriving.

Airlines are in disarray, oil prices have plummeted, but it won’t be long before people take to the skies again in fossil-fuelled planes – or will it? With one or more coronavirus spikes likely in the near future, can both industries endure further turmoil? Plus, recent research indicating that pollution aids the spread of Covid-19 could make us look for greener ways of travelling globally.

Why turn to the airship? Well, first it’s about as green as global travel gets. Lighter-than-air flight is quiet and uses less fuel during a long journey than planes do just by taking off. Furthermore, current projects by the likes of Hybrid Air Vehicles are close to developing a carbon-neutral version that can fly non-stop for over 70 hours.

Then there’s the fact that airships ascend from a mast so they don’t need a runway to launch, bringing global travel to everyone’s doorstep and reducing the crowds you get at airports that could be so dangerous during a pandemic.

It’s also important to remember that the Hindenburg - Germany’s leading luxury passenger airship - was the Concorde of its day, regularly flying across the Atlantic to New York. Routes to Australia were planned in the R101 that would have taken around five days with just three to four quick stops, due to its ability to reach speeds of up to 130mph in favourable wind conditions.

However, with the Hindenburg ultimately meeting the same fate as the R101, the question of safety remains the big elephant on the flight deck. Let’s address it head on. The original airships used highly flammable hydrogen for buoyancy; today, this has been replaced by non-flammable helium, eliminating the fire threat.

Tragically, most of the 54 passengers aboard the R101 lost their lives, while of the Hindenburg’s 97 passengers and crew, 35 were killed along with one unfortunate observer on the ground. However, the other 1,200-plus airships built since the first attempt in 1784 generally boast impressive safety records. The Graf Zeppelin, for example, made 290 flights, covering 330,000 miles, safely carrying 8,000 passengers. Airships are potentially both safe and environmentally friendly.

Graf Zeppelin

The Graf Zeppelin made hundreds of flights and carried thousands of passengers

Image credit: Airship Heritage Trust

Airships are also unexpectedly versatile. Not only do they offer a green way to travel the globe in style, they also present several commercial and military options. Their almost noise-free nature, coupled with the ability to stay airborne for days with a small crew, makes them especially good for sea surveillance and ideal for air/sea rescue; anti-piracy and anti-smuggling operations; coastguard patrols; fisheries protection; underwater recovery and more. They could also be used for pursuits such as whale watching and safaris, as they would not disturb wildlife.

All of this would potentially be just the start, because modern airship technology remains in its infancy. 

Although a lack of professionalism, realism and good business acumen has dogged the industry to date, there is interest among angel investors and venture-capital syndicates, plus government incentives to encourage innovation. Today’s airships would benefit from stronger materials, better bonding techniques, faster and more reliable means of making complex calculations, computer modelling, and more advanced meteorological insight.

With the right support and investment, Britain would be well placed to lead the world again in establishing airships as a highly useful part of transport infrastructure - and possibly a whole lot more.

How about an airship warehouse, served by drones, bringing e-commerce orders closer to consumers to speed up delivery times? Or using airships to solve one of the biggest issues facing the planet: a lack of space for its constantly growing population? The house airship, akin to the houseboat, only airborne, would leave no ground footprint and would also be mobile.

Could airships really rule the skies of the future? The facts are there. All that’s required is vision and investment.

Alastair Lawson is with the Airship Heritage Trust, a learned society set up in 1985 to promote the history of British airships. Airship Dreams is inviting people across the UK and beyond to share their personal airship connections, family tales and objects. For details see www.airshipdreams.com or email hello@airshipdreams.com.

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