No longer pie-in-the-sky, the airship rises again

2008 could see a Zeppelin looming over London – this time on a peaceful mission. John Christopher reports.

Airships – what are they good for and when was the last time you saw one? Apart from on television, I suspect the answer is never. That is

all about to change in 2008. This could prove be the year the airship

rises again.

At present about 30 are operating, mostly in the United States. These are relatively small craft with an average length of about 200ft, a quarter of the size of the Hindenburg. Nearly all are all "blimps" or more accurately "non-rigid" or "pressure airships" which have no framework. Their bloated cigar profile is maintained by internal helium pressure and they are little more than flying billboards.

Theirs is a humble role far removed from the Zeppelins of the 1920s and 1930s when those silvery leviathans carried their wealthy passengers

across the Atlantic in a degree of style and comfort only equalled by the ocean liners.

But the big Zeppelins of the past were fatally flawed. Inflated with millions of cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen, they were flying bombs waiting for a spark. When the Hindenburg crashed at Lakehurst,

New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, the golden age of the airship was over in a matter of seconds. One of the first disasters to be caught on film, the harrowing newsreels combined with radio reporter Herb Morrison's emotional "Oh the humanity..." commentary, were indelibly etched into the public consciousness. It didn't matter that about two-thirds of the passengers and crew had actually survived. After the war, the Goodyear tyre company kept the flag flying with its fleet of promotional blimps, and every now and then a visionary would emerge who wanted to rekindle the dream of giant airships with vast nuclear-powered craft many times bigger than the Hindenburg.

None were built. It wasn't until the 1970s that the first truly modern blimp arrived. The Skyships 500, and later the 600, were constructed by the British company Airship Industries. They featured many of the elements which have become standard – lightweight materials for the envelope, gondola and control surfaces, fly-by-wire controls – and, perhaps most importantly, a system of tilting or vectoring the propellers to direct the thrust for manoeuvring. Airship Industries had created a superb airship. But they failed to find enough customers and went bust in 1989.

Other designs have emerged, some combining the buoyancy of helium lifting gas with the aerodynamic lift generated by a wing or an aerofoil-shaped hull. Known as "lifting bodies" or "hybrid" aircraft, some of these resemble flying saucers. Others are flattened versions of the blimp. None has gone beyond the concept stage. Meanwhile, in Germany, a slumbering giant was waiting to enter the fray. After the war, the Zeppelin company survived by diversifying into other forms of engineering. By the 1990s, they were ready to build airships once more – and not just blimps. They wanted a rigid-framed airship.

Enter the Zeppelin NT07 (NT for new technology). It took the original Zeppelin concept and gave it a new twist using modern materials. A metal framework allowed the engines to be attached to the side of the hull, reducing cabin noise, while a third engine on the tail vastly improved ground manoeuvring. Suddenly airships were really going somewhere and it was time to put them to work. But to do what?

Tourism is the fastest growing area. If you had wanted to book a sight-seeing flight just 12 months ago, you had to go to Zeppelin's base in southern Germany. Now you can also fly over Tokyo, and later this year the London and San Francisco operations are expected to take to the air. New York and other locations are not far behind.

In Europe, a group called ZET is attempting to establish an airship shuttle service between major cities using a bigger version of the Zeppelin NT, but it won't be available for some years. And what of the prospect of a return to transatlantic flight? Frankly, it is very unlikely in the foreseeable future. It would require a huge

airship and an even bigger development budget.

The military market remains notoriously fickle. Huge sums, usually dollars, are allocated for studies, submitting tenders and so on, but the projects seldom reach fruition once the politicians realise how much they could eventually cost. This happened recently with the US Defence Agency's Walrus programme. The idea was for a large transport airship to move payloads in excess of 500 tons direct from the US to any trouble-spot in the world.

The US military are continuing to pursue an unmanned high-altitude communications airship. To this end, Lockheed is working on a "proof-of-concept" craft, a project which could pave the way for similar civil applications. The US is also looking at airships for aerial surveillance, unmanned and manned, either to patrol its national borders and coastline or to oversee public gatherings.

We are all familiar from our television screen with eye-in-the-sky airships tethered over big sporting events and you can expect to see many more over the Beijing Olympics in the summer and again over the London Games in 2012. With roads and motorways jammed and the railways' capacity over-extended, the idea of using airships to shift freight or big indivisible loads looks attractive. Germany led the way again and in the 1990s the CargoLifter project was established at an airfield to the south of Berlin. Funding came from government regeneration grants and the issue of shares. The plan was to build something called the CL160 – bigger than the Hindenburg and able to transport loads of up to 160 tons to any location. Amid much hoo-ha, a vast hangar, shaped like a jelly mould, was erected, a visitors' centre opened, and glossy brochures and newsletters spread the word.

A small test airship was built but the big CL160 never got off the drawing board. When the bubble burst, the company went into liquidation. The jelly mould hangar is now an indoor tropical holiday resort. Despite the CargoLifter debacle, smaller schemes for freight hauling may yet get airborne. In northern Canada, rising temperatures are melting the vital network of ice roads and building conventional roads to replace them is impossible. Flying may be the only link for many remote communities and some experts predict a demand for over 100 hybrid airships for Canada. Each would carry 50-ton payloads.

Airships offer a vibration-free platform which can be accurately positioned and stay on-station far longer than conventional aircraft. That makes them invaluable for scientific and environmental missions. Last summer, Zeppelin provided one of its airships to carry equipment for atmospheric studies conducted by Stuttgart University.

Airships are also less environmentally intrusive than other aircraft. In Borneo, one was used to lower an inflatable raft on to the rainforest canopy so that scientists could examine the flora and fauna without damaging it. Off the Florida coast, airships have been successful in observing whales without instrusive boats upsetting their migration. These scientific applications overlap with commercial ones. In Botswana, the De Beers group has deployed an airship for mineral surveying work using ground-penetrating equipment. It is said that the airship could do in a day what normally took a ground-based team a month or more.

It doesn't require any great stretch of the imagination to see that similar equipment also offers exciting possibilities in the detection of land mines. Initial field tests have proved very encouraging.

Let's keep it in perspective. The airship will never be the solution to all our transport needs. But it is being taken seriously again. For the first time in decades it seems that the airship has a future. Keep watching the skies.

John Christopher is the former editor of the Airship journal, an expert on lighter-than-air craft and a director of Airship Initiatives