Aircraft and Atmospheric Systems

Hybrid airships move closer to commercial flight


The Lighter-Than-Air-Systems Technical Committee stimulates development of knowledge related to airships and aerostats for use in a host of applications from transportation to surveillance.

The ADB-3-X01, made by Airship do Brasil, is the first manned airship built in Latin America. Credit: Airship do Brasil

Proponents of hybrid airships that derive part of their lift from helium and the rest from aerodynamics gained momentum toward building a new market for their aircraft.

Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander 10, following damage sustained in a nose-down, hard landing late in 2016, returned to the sky in May, modified to include such safety features as two thimble-shaped, 10-foot-long bumper bags mounted on each side of the bridge. During flight, the bags lie flat, but during landing they can be air-inflated in 20 seconds to protect the bridge against collision with large fixed objects, including the ground. In September, the European Aviation Safety Agency deemed Airlander ready for customer trials and granted Hybrid Air Vehicles permission to make higher, faster and more distant test flights from its Cardington, Britain, base, which the company says it will soon vacate.

In October, Hybrid Air Vehicles signed two deals to create a luxury-tourism variant of Airlander. One, with British travel purveyor Henry Cookson Adventures, anticipates a first tourist flight in 2018. The other, with aircraft interior designer Design Q, calls for that company to create a special tourism configuration for the Airlander’s gondola. A statement released by the three companies imagines tourist trips to the the North Pole, Bolivia’s Salt Flats and the Namib Desert.

Lockheed Martin, whose LHM-1 hybrid airship is still in development, said in April it had entered into a strategic partnership with gas exploration and refining company Helium One to use its airships to transport liquefied helium from wells in Tanzania to the African coast for shipment. Helium One said its’ deposits contain nearly 100 billion cubic feet of the gas–enough to “alleviate fears of a global shortage for decades to come.” Helium is used for lighter-than-air craft, welding, underwater breathing gases and other technologies. Hybrid Enterprises, exclusive reseller for LMH-1, signed a letter of intent in June for a deal valued at $500 million with France’s Hybrid Air Freighters to sell the French company up to 12 LMH-1 airships, starting in early 2020. The deal follows a similar announcement last year that Hybrid Enterprises had signed a letter of intent to sell 12 LMH-1s to Britain’s Straightline Aviation.

Brazil, birthplace of airship pioneer Santos-Dumont, on July 24 celebrated the inaugural flight of the first manned airship built in Latin America. The ADB-3- XO1, made by Airship do Brasil, is an update of U.S. Lighter Than Air Corp.’s type-certified 138S from the 1980s. The Brazilian airship company considered less traditional designs but chose this one for its ability to hover while delivering cargo to jungle sites too small for a hybrid airship to land. With 3-X01, the company said it has joined the ranks of only six companies in the world able to complete a full research-and-development cycle for building an airship.

Goodyear in February retired its last blimp, “Spirit of Innovation,” replacing it with “Wingfoot Two,” a semi-rigid Zeppelin NT that arrived in Long Beach, California, in late October. It had completed a 10-state journey from Akron, Ohio, under the command of Taylor Deen, one of two female pilots of lighter-than-air craft in the world. The new dirigible will be housed in an inflatable, nine-story “air dock” at Goodyear’s base in Carson, California.

Walmart in February filed a patent for a lighter-than-air warehouse — a dirigible that could carry package-delivering drones. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had previously granted a similar patent to Amazon that envisioned a high-altitude “monitoring station” that would keep track of delivery drones and that, when flying at lower altitudes, could deliver packages itself.

Hybrid airships move closer to commercial flight