Transportation

Born-again dirigibles, the Hindenburg legacy

Julianne Labreche April 16 1979
Transportation

Born-again dirigibles, the Hindenburg legacy

Julianne Labreche April 16 1979

Born-again dirigibles, the Hindenburg legacy

Transportation

The death of the airship industry came that rainy evening of May 6, 1937, when the majestic Hindenburg, that German luxury liner of the skies, burst into a 500-foot-high fireball while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The explosion, which occurred when highly flammable hydrogen gas ignited, killed 13 passengers and 22 crewmen. This disaster, coupled with a world economic crisis and the horrorfilled memories of silent Zeppelin airships on their night bombing raids over London during World War I, meant there were neither the finances nor the fascination to continue flying dirigibles.

Recently however, after more than 40 years of disuse, daring attempts are be ing made worldwide to revive these bal loon-like flying machines, not for nostalgia. hut as

a realistic alterna tive to contempo rary high-speed, fixed-wing air craft. The New York Times a few weeks ago heralded airships as being the "mules of the future," since their strength to-

day lies not in passenger service but in carrying heavy cargo. Recently ex perts gathered at an interna tional symposium of modern airships held in Paris, with rep resentatives from the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, and \ the Soviet Union. As Alberta govern ment delegate, Ron Browning, told the Paris audience: "All too often during the past three years, those of us who have advocated a second look at dirigi bles have felt we were crying in the wilderness. But now, attitudes are changing." These working airships being de signed for the 1980s are substantially different from their 1930s predecessors. They're faster, consume less fuel, and most significantly, are safer, being filled with helium-a light colorless, nonflammable gas-rather than hydro gen. Unlike airships of old, requiring sometimes 600 men to moor them, these newer models, with their mechanical aids, cut ground crew to a handful. Be ing energy-efficient, and having low levels of noise and air pollution, born-

again dirigibles seem to better suit these times. Now, suddenly, there's big money to be had in building airships and an international industrial race is on to manufacture them for domestic use and export. Joining this competition are airship enthusiasts in Canada, trying hard to launch their plans. Ottawa's National Research Council recently awarded a $190,000 contract to Canadair Ltd., in Montreal, to study the commercial via bility of various types of airships. As Fred Phillips, the company's chief de

velopment engineer says: “When we let our minds wander a bit, we can see ourselves being involved in a project like this very readily.” Though there are no immediate plans to construct dirigibles, he foresees that a significant part of the potential market will be for carrying heavy cargoes over short distances: for logging operations, mineral exploration in the Far North, and even for carrying prefabricated homes. There’s also the possibility of using them for coastal surveillance along Canada’s 200-mile limit, patrolling fishing grounds or for anti-submarine warfare. One small firm, Aerostat Airship Corporation,

also in Montreal, will start building airships on a modest scale by the fall. Their price range will vary from $500,000 for airships with a one-ton capacity to $20 million for a 1,000-ton-capacity dirigible. Its president, Claude Bélanger, predicts optimistically: “There’s a big market for airships in a variety of applications. Some day, they’re going to be as popular as a truck in the backyard.”

So far, Alberta has expressed a keener interest than other provinces in this lighter-than-air (LTA) technology. With a mammoth $15-billion Alaska natural-gas pipeline planned to cross

the province in the 1980s, airships could conceivably get pipeline equipment into remote northern areas faster and more efficiently than constructing roads, rail or runways. Alberta has already commissioned a study by Goodyear Corp., in the U.S., to identify potential markets for airships, and has also agreed to cooperate in letting the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fly heavy freight-carrying dirigibles over the northern part of the province. “We’re just a natural in terms of economics and geography for something like this to happen,” says Browning.

For the moment, however, with most airship designs still on the drawing paper, there are as many cynics as believers in assessing their commercial worth. Most of the major technical flaws have been worked out, and the real doubts now are about the economics of any such venture. “We have to be careful the grand mystique doesn’t get carried away,” reflects Keith Glegg, NRC’s vice-president of industry. “Just because they’re big and beautiful doesn’t mean they’re economically sound.” When airships do come on the market, however, he foresees a variety of models, from non-rigids or “blimps” (simply air bags enclosed by fabric) to the more complicated rigid designs with metal frames, plus a wide variety of hybrids in between.

Already, several countries, willing to take the financial leap, have the lead on Canada in manufacturing airships. Japan, for instance, will soon spend $100 million for a major six-year study, and expects to have two flight-test vehicles flying by 1984—one with a two-ton carrying capacity, the other with a 20-ton capacity. In the U.S., during Senate science hearings in early March, several senators expressed enthusiasm in reviving airships after hearing testimony from Goodyear representatives, whose company built wartime navy blimps and still operates four blimps for advertising and pleasure riding. Goodyear also has its own plans for new-generation airships. And in Britain, where airship technology is perhaps most advanced, the first modern airship, called AD-500, made its maiden voyage successfully in early February. Already, Aerospace Developments, the British firm that developed this airship, has a $12-million contract to sell 22 of them to a company in Venezuela. Ironically, the sale of the first of the AD-500s reflects the still somewhat shaky state of the art, since before signing on the dotted line, the Venezuelan firm made sure it was relieved of all risk in the venture. Unfortunately, there’s still some legwork left, since the latest word is that the AD-500 crashed during on-ground testing last month. Julianne Labreche