Relaunching the airship

JOHN BARBER July 20 1987

Relaunching the airship

JOHN BARBER July 20 1987

Relaunching the airship


The air is hot and choppy as pilot Michael Young steers the Fuji airship over the northern suburbs of Milwaukee toward Lake Michigan. Thermal currents surging upward buffet the 164-foot-long blimp, transforming its passage into a rollicking elephantine ballet. Young wrestles with the helm as if it were an exercise machine, pumping and twisting while the ship pitches and yaws toward the calmer air over the blue-green lake in the distance. That is what chief pilot Trevor Hunt calls “basic aviation.” When you fly a blimp, added copilot Stephen Tomlin, “you actually have to fly. It’s not a case of ‘wheels up, flaps up, coffee up.’ ” Simply getting the airship across town violates the rule printed on a plaque above the instrument panel: “Aerobatic manoeuvres are not approved.” The exercise-intended to display Fuji signs—is all part of the rebirth of lighter-than-air aviation.

Life: It was 50 years ago that the golden age of dirigibles ended with the fiery explosion of the zeppelin Hindenburg at Lakehurst, N.J. But last month the U.S. navy revived the tradition when it awarded Airship Industries Ltd. (Aí), the British company that owns and operates the Fuji ship, $264 million to build a better blimp for military surveillance. By showing that the apparently antiquated dirigible has a place in modern battle, the contract breathed life into dozens of plans for airships in modern transportation. They range from craft to compete with helicopters in logging to trucks for carrying freight past the ends of roads. Said airship advocate Rowland McFarlane, retired deputy minister of transport in Alberta: “Maybe it’s time to say, ‘To hell with the future, let’s get on with the past.’ ”

The U.S. navy’s vision of that future includes a fleet of 50 airships, each about 400 feet long and containing 1.5 million cubic feet of lighter-than-air helium, eight times as much as the Fuji airship. The reason it wants to build

such ships now, more than 20 years after scrapping its original blimp fleet, lies in the threat of modern sea-skimming missiles. That became clear first in 1982 when a French-built Argentine Exocet missile sank the British destroyer HMS Sheffield in the Falklands War, and again in May when two Iraqi Exocets disabled the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf. The missiles are all but invisible to shipboard radar as well as that carried by airborne warning and control system (AWACS) airplanes. But airships can scan above a fleet with much more sensitive equipment and can stay aloft for days as opposed to hours. They themselves will be protected both by the fleet and also by the use of so-called stealth technology to make them difficult to detect.

Bid: The fact that the contract went to a British firm was a major blow to Ohio-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which has built more than 300 airships since 1911. Its three surviving blimps are a fixture above North American sports stadiums, but the company’s chances suffered in § March when it sold its § aerospace division to 2 Loral Corp. of New York City to defend itself against a takeover bid. As well, Goodyear has done little to update airship technology since it filled its last order almost 30 years ago. Said Thomas Berger, president of Wisconsinbased Ulita Industries, Inc., which is developing its own compact surveillance blimp: “Goodyear is a prime example of American industry dragging its feet. They were complacent.”

Truth: Last fall Goodyear vice-president Fred Nebiker said that his British rival’s first blimps leaked so badly that they had to be patched with Saran Wrap. But above Lake Michigan aboard one of those first ships, launched four years ago, the view is different. “Most Americans don’t like to admit it,” declared pilot Young, his voice competing with the high-pitched howl of the ship’s British-built gearbox and the steady drone of its twin Porsche 911 German engines, “but the truth of the matter is that Goodyear has been resting on

its backside for far too long.” Evidence of Al’s innovation is most apparent in the ship’s car, which is made of lightweight composite materials instead of metal, and in its twin cowled propellers, which can pivot in order to push the ship up or down as well as forward. During takeoff, a cumbersome process in most blimps, the vertical thrust of the Fuji ship “just blows it off

the ground,” according to Tomlin.

For its part, Goodyear is now completing construction of a new airship that will have many of the same capabilities. And indeed, Goodyear officials tried to assert their pre-eminence in the airship field by suing Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. Inc. for trademark infringement last year, claiming that blimp advertising is Goodyear’s exclusive right. The

suit was recently settled privately out of court. But in the meantime the British firm put nine advertising airships into service in the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia, home of the company’s majority owner, former America’s Cup defender Alan Bond.

Novel: Bond’s company leases one ship and its 18-person crew for about $350,000 per month. But the novelty of

blimps makes them irresistible to some advertisers. When not operating controls, blimp pilots often pass time waving back to their audience. Copilot Tomlin recalls a day that he spent on a British beach when one of Al’s billboard blimps floated into view. “Everybody looked up,” he said, “and everybody who had a camera took a picture.” Aí broadened its business when it launched a regular sightseeing service, with $200 tickets for a one-hour flight over San Francisco on May 6, 1987—exactly 50 years after the Hindenburg crash.

Bright: The company’s success in making blimps pay their way has inspired the small but committed band of airship advocates who previously only had their dreams to console them. But in fact, the airship dreamers are far from satisfied by visions of skies cluttered with helium-filled advertisements or even military surveillance platforms. Instead, they envisage the world transportation system made over by new kinds of heavy-lift airships. So far their record of achievement has been spotty, with most projects petering out for lack of funds after the construction of large scale models. But the faith still burns bright. “Many people start these things, then they fall apart,” said Alberta’s McFarlane. “But I think it is ready now. The time is right for the true renaissance of the dirigible.”

The first obstacle confronting those attempting to bring about that renaissance is what they call “the Hindenburg syndrome.” Usually, the syndrome takes the form of simple skepticism. It emerged last summer when inventor Frank Piasecki attempted to launch his revolutionary Heli-Stat airship less than a kilometre from the New Jersey site where the Hindenburg crashed. The Heli-Stat, comprising four surplus helicopters connected by a steel framework to a 1950s navy surplus blimp, failed catastrophically on a test flight, killing one crewman and injuring four others. The U.S. forest service had invested $33 million in the machine, designed to lift logs from remote sites.

Classic: Despite such events, airship advocates say that the Hindenburg crash is now irrelevant. They point out that modern ships filled with inert helium could not burn like the Hindenburg, which used hydrogen because at the time the United States would not surrender its helium monopoly. They also blame the sobbing, hysterical reporting of radio newsman Herb Morrison, whose broadcast of the Hindenburg explosion, recorded live, is a classic monument to the power of electronic media. Morrison initiated a modern myth when he declared, “There’s not a possible chance of anybody being saved.” But in fact, 61 of the 97 people aboard the Hindenburg walked away from the wreck.

Declared John Tansowny, an investment director with the Alberta government and director of Lighter Than Air International, a group devoted to promoting the airship cause: “If we had had an excited cameraman in a dinghy watching the Titanic going down, we probably wouldn’t be using boats now.”

Fever: One thing seems clear: the Lakehurst crash overshadowed the remarkable achievements of the great German zeppelins. When the 776-footlong Graf Zeppelin first appeared over New York in 1928, it created a sensation, quickly nicknamed Zeppelin Fever, that spread wherever it travelled. Over its nine-year career, the famous craft covered a remarkable 1,053,000 miles safely, and made one nonstop 6,973-mile trip from Germany to Japan. It flew over pack ice in the High Arctic and through tropical cyclones. As a passenger ship it made 63 round trips between Germany and Rio de Janeiro, averaging 95 hours one way—about 10 days better than the fastest liners.

The 804-foot Hindenburg, launched in March, 1936, was the most advanced and luxurious rigid airship ever built—a “great floating palace,” according to Morrison. It had hotel-like lounges and cabins for 72 passengers and even a 112lb. aluminum piano. Passengers balanced coins on edge to test the company’s claim that it offered “the quietest and most comfortable means of transportation known.” There is no record of any passengers becoming airsick.

The job of protecting ships from cruise missiles requires no aviation technology fundamentally different from that employed in the past. By contrast, conventional blimps are ill-suited to hauling heavy cargo. The main problem is ballast transfer. If an airship is made sufficiently buoyant to carry a heavy load, an equal weight of ballast must be taken on at the same time as

the cargo is unloaded.

The alternative would be venting helium to reduce lift, which would prevent the ship from picking up more cargo elsewhere before returning to its home base. And even without cargo, airships require extensive ground support— the small Fuji blimp uses an 11-person ground crew to take off and land.

Prime: Those logistical problems would defeat one of the prime attractions of airship transport— the ability to operate in remote, relatively

inaccessible areas where establishing and maintaining ground-service facilities are difficult. Mainly for that reason, those who envisage cargo airships—“the banana freighters of the 21st century,”

according to one advocate—have been forced into devising novel and in some cases radical designs. Many of those radical designs have emerged in Canada. Perhaps the bestknown is the airship being developed by the Magnus Aerospace Corp. of Ottawa, the Magnus LTA-20— better known as the flying golf ball. The Magnus consists of a spherical bag of helium with a fuselage slung beneath it on two curving arms. “It has never been done before,” said Magnus aviation researcher Dennis Hughes. “No one has ever seen a round airplane.” The helium is intended to support the weight of the ship, while helicopter-like rotors will provide most of the cargocarrying capacity. Apart from its shape, the most innovative aspect of the ship is the fact that it spins to generate extra lift. Aerodynamically, this is known as “the Magnus ef-

fect,” after H. G. Magnus, a German physicist, who first described it. Magnus Aerospace built a 22-foot-diameter model of its ship in 1982 and tested it for a year. Now Hughes says that the company is planning a 65-foot prototype that will lift one ton. He added that the design’s main advantage is that “with a sphere there is no such thing as a crosswind.” But technical dif-

ficulties with the Magnus ship forced organizers of the Canada Pavilion at Expo 86 to cancel its scheduled appearance in Vancouver. They replaced it with a model of a flying saucer. Also known as the Hystar airship, it was designed by Vancouver’s George Ninkovich to solve the problem of lifting timber out of remote sites. The Hystar consists of a doughnut-shaped ring filled with helium surrounding a central fan that blows downward to provide extra lift. The 15-foot, radio-controlled model flown regularly at Expo proved so successful that Hystar received inquiries about

using similar craft for promotional work. Ninkovich said that he has since built more than 12 of them and that they have helped him to finance a 55foot manned model designed to lift one

ton. It is now undergoing flight tests.

So far, the only experimental modern airship ever to lift more than a ton is the bizarre Cyclo-Crane, built by AeroLift Inc. of Tillamook, Ore. To many, the 1985 maiden flight of the 190-foot CycloCrane, lifting a microbus in its cargo sling, represented an aerodynamic miracle. Like the Hystar, the Cyclo-Crane was designed to replace heavy-lift helicopters in logging. It resembles a blimp, except that it has four large wings projecting out from its centre. In flight the craft spins around its long axis, passing air over the four wings, which can be adjusted either to lift the craft up or press it down.

Loft: Unlike the LTA-20s and the Hystars, which contain just enough helium to loft their own weight, the Cyclo-Crane is so buoyant that when it is not loaded the wings must be kept moving to hold it down. A crash due to engine failure would be as novel as its design. “Unlike a lot of construction cranes that fall down and kill people,” said AeroLift vice-president Robert Phillips, “this one falls up.”

The Cyclo-Crane’s life began auspiciously seven years ago with $3 million invested by a consortium of three Vancouver logging companies,

MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., Pacific Logging Ltd. and British Columbia Forest Products Ltd. But AeroLift is “struggling with a lack of resources,” according to Phillips, searching out investors to finance a ship with a payload capacity of 13 to 16 tons.

Phillips’s problem is one of those facing the new generation of airships. But when one model proves fatally flawed, there is usually a new one available. The one currently filling that role is the work of a West German engineer based in Edmonton and financed mainly by a Vancouver mining company. Juergen Bothe began working on airships in 1978 for the West German government, which was investigating a role for airships in Third World transport. He concluded that blimps were “too ancient a technology,” and he devised a hybrid craft instead. Bothe said that hard scrutiny from independent experts has proved his Helitruck “significantly superior” to any other new design. “This is not the renaissance of the airship,” he added, “but the birth of a new type of aircraft.”

On paper, the Helitruck is a formidable machine. A combination of lift-

ing devices—including helium, stubby wings, helicopter-like rotors and the bulbous fuselage itself—enables it to take off from a short runway when fully loaded with a maximum 10 tons. It can fly at 275 m.p.h. Its rigid shell design is based on the sleek form of a dolphin, but its dimensions—140 feet long by 110 feet wide—bring it closer to the shape of a pregnant goldfish. Still, what it trades off esthetically, the Helitruck more than gains with a cargo hold three times the size of

the hold in a de Havilland Dash 7.

Bothe says that he sees two main roles for the ship: providing short-haul, door-to-door cargo service in industrial areas and functioning as “a truck where there are no roads.” He said that extensive studies suggest that there is indeed a market niche awaiting the Helitruck. “I am firm in my belief that once you could show this model, you would have a mini-revolution in transportation,” he declared, adding that he only needs $25 million to build one.

Avid: The search for that money is what brought the 43-year-old inventor to Canada. He has found a supporter in Vas Rotgans, president of Mandrell Mining Ltd. in Vancouver. Rotgans, whose company develops and markets

new mining technology, recently set up Bothe with an office and a Cyber 180130 scientific computer in Edmonton. The two chose Edmonton because of Alberta’s interest in airships, dating from the 1970s, when McFarlane was deputy minister of transport. Now retired, he is an avid supporter of Bothe, whom he calls “a brilliant engineer.” Bothe said that he came to the province partly because of its “political interest” in airships, adding that government encouragement as well as financial support are necessary for the success of the project. And for his part, Rotgans said: “We want something that is not a pipe dream but an economic tool with a specific function. A lot of people dream of floating in air, which is nice, but it doesn’t pay.”

Vision: That attitude is common. In fact, it is a characteristic of many latter-day airship advocates that they dismiss potential competitors as mere dreamers. One man whose vision is particularly broad is Leslie Vivian of L.R. Vivian Associates Ltd., a Toronto firm that publishes technical manuals. Vivian has developed an elegant plan for deploying Bothe’s Helitrucks in the Canadian North. The system would involve large standardized containers fitted out as prefabricated houses, snowmobile repair shops and medical centres. Vivian said that the Helitruck would allow the building of entire towns and industries in the roadless North, adding that it could pick up and move containers wherever they were needed —creating what he calls “tumbleweed industries.” Vivian said that his plan sets him apart from what he called “the concept dreamers who failed because they established no legitimate applications.”

Still, the fact remains that there are few who can make the same claims as Aí vice-president George Spyrou, who introduced himself at a Vancouver conference last fall by declaring: “I shall not show you drawings of dreams, but photographs of reality.” Aí has shown where the immediate future lies: advertising and surveillance. But the company has been a pioneer in suppressing the mirth that once greeted calls for the return of airships. And now there are fewer factors than ever before preventing some new aviator’s dream from taking off and flying.

—JOHN BARBER in Toronto