Air cruising

Imagine clinking champagne glasses aboard a helium airship in the midst of a five-day luxury “air cruise” with daily stops at tourist destinations.

That’s the vision of Hybrid Air Vehicles, or HAV, the U.K.-based company that for a decade has been seeking to create and sell aircraft blending the lift of helium with the advantages of the aerodynamic lift of heavier-than-air vehicles.

HAV calls its hybrid design Airlander 10. The company received a major boost in June, when Spanish airline Air Nostrum provisionally ordered 10 of the aircraft to operate on domestic routes. Gaining a launch customer provides HAV the impetus to start production.

HAV aims to gain a U.K. Civil Aviation Authority type certificate for Airlander 10 by 2026 via a three-aircraft test program.

“We like to call it a hybrid aircraft,” HAV Chief Operating Officer Nick Allman says. “It is a combination of aerostatic lift from helium, aerodynamic lift from its hull shape and the ability to vector the thrust of engine propellers.”

The first Airlander 10s will be propelled by helium and four diesel engines produced by RED Aircraft GMBH of Germany, a maker of diesel piston engines. HAV eventually wants to shift to four electric engines after an interim step of two diesel engines and two electric engines. HAV aims for zero-emissions, electric-powered Airlander 10s to be flying by 2030.

But even with four combustion engines, the aircraft will be much more efficient — if slower — than traditional fixed-wing commercial aircraft, Allman says. The “free lift” provided by helium is the key feature allowing the Airlander 10 to use much less power than traditional airliners.

“The hull of the aircraft floats with no energy,” Allman says. “Really, we’re only using the engines to give us some forward speed and to lift the payload.”

The aircraft will take off and land on any large flat surface — no airport needed. The Airlander will roll to take off as an airplane does but will go aloft when it reaches a speed of about 55 kilometers per hour. In cruise, the 10-metric ton payload aircraft will reach speeds of up to 130 kph. Landing will happen simply by turning off the motors and pumping air into the fuselage.

“If you start off with a latex helium party balloon and you take it up 1,000 feet, it would get bigger because the air pressure around that balloon goes down and the helium therefore is able to expand,” Allman explains. “When the Airlander is on the ground, only around half of that fuselage space is full of helium and half of it is actually filled with air. As we go up in altitude, we let air out of that space. As we come down in altitude, we pump air back in.”

The Airlander design is an evolution of the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, a surveillance airship HAV built with Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Army. The service flew the aircraft just once in 2012 before canceling the program because of budget constraints. HAV then began focusing on commercial viability. 

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Commercial Aircraft

About Aaron Karp

Aaron is a contributing editor to the Aviation Week Network and has covered the aviation business for 20 years. He was previously managing editor of Air Cargo World and editor-in-chief of Aviation Daily.

“The hull of the aircraft floats with no energy. Really, we’re only using the engines to give us some forward speed and to lift the payload.”

Nick Allman, Hybrid Air Vehicles

Air cruising