By Bernie Littlejohn –
We seem to have current desires to travel faster and faster, and further and further, both for business and pleasure. For most people this is due to wishing to save time. The time of our limited lives, that is. But for those of us who care about our planet, travelling faster means causing more pollution. It has also means using valuable land around cities to accommodate faster aircraft and achieve these timely desires.
So, if some organization decided to offer a more efficient but slower method of travel, many would consider it somewhat retro. And for many, no doubt it is retro. But for those of us who really do care enough about pollution, global warming, and the waste of valuable land, we might consider giving up more of our time and slowing down. Particularly if it had some enhancements built into it.
What I am leading up to is that just such travel alternatives are on the horizon once more. Airships are again being built by Hybrid Air Vehicles in Britain, Lockheed Martin in the USA, and several other companies around the world. So, it is clear that an airship industry is heating up once more, after a long gap in time. The reason it is heating up is that most of these new airship designs can fly with about a tenth of the energy and costs of current winged aircraft. They are also cheaper to build. This makes moving passengers and heavy air freight considerably more attractive and profitable.
These new aircraft use some of the features of current aircraft, but without the long wings. They instead use “lifting bodies” and propellers that provide thrust in alternative directions, including lift similar to a helicopter. But they only use helium for a proportion of their lift. For this reason, they are being called, hybrid airships. Included in their advantages are not requiring a large ground crew to handle them, as the old airships did. Instead they use the propellers thrusting downwards to keep them on the ground until a mobile mooring mast is attached. And I hear one company is considering air cruises with the British Airlander 10, to be built by Hybrid Air Vehicles. So, we might see passengers walking and sitting around casually while in flight, just as they did in the German Hindenburg Zeppelin back in 1937. But since helium will be the lifting gas, they will be without the dangers inherent in the Hindenburg with hydrogen.
So, contemplating the transport cost-to-weight ratios at one-tenth of current values, it is quite clear the difference this can make in the way we transport freight in the years ahead. One company is proposing shipping mining concentrate from Quebec already. And freight trucks could diminish considerably from our highways. At these costs, the new air vehicles might even compete with pipelines. Clearly this major change in the way some bulk freight is shipped will require new ways of loading and unloading these new aircraft that have not been required before. And if it is not done properly, without local pollution, by using money-saving shortcuts, we could see opposition to them as we currently see to tankers and pipelines. So hopefully this will be dealt with from the start.
Many people are contemplating the difference that electric cars can make in saving our planet, as they are starting to appear on our highways. And no doubt some people will be considering whether it is possible that hybrid air vehicles could be scaled down to family vehicles, perhaps even self-navigating ones. Currently I have seen no hint of this being proposed on an industrial scale, although I believe DIY home builders have been building experimental models already. The profit margin would almost certainly be lower on small, mass produced air vehicles. But the advantage of not requiring pavement and travelling at a variety of altitudes could be very appealing to local governments who have the nagging job of building and maintaining them.
Bernie Littlejohn was born and grew up in London, UK. He attended the Borough Polytechnic Institute to earn a national certificate in mechanical engineering during the WWII blitz years. He served in the Royal Air Force, emigrated to Canada in 1954 to work in the paper industry, and later retired in Williams Lake.