The world is pretty much over airships and has been for 80 years or so. How that happened is an interesting story. Okay, it’s not that interesting. But if that’s the case that blimps are largely obsolete, why do we see companies popping up over and over again with their airship schemes, none of which has worked since the Hindenburg upset pretty much all of humanity with its impromptu fireworks?
There are many good reasons that blimps are niche players, doomed to fly as giant billboards and camera platforms for tennis matches and golf tournaments (so viewers at least have something to watch). One of the reasons for their lack of popularity is not, we might add, them catching fire and killing passengers and bystanders on black & white film. They’ve pretty much had the up-in-flames thing worked out forever.
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No, the three biggest reasons that blimps are old news is, number one, that they’re slow, number two, that they’re really, really slow, and, number three, have we mentioned how freakin’ slow they are? After all, who wants to whoosh from New York to LA in six hours or so when you could instead bounce around from coast to coast over a week or two?
The reason that blimps worked back in the 1930s was that there weren’t any decent airliners yet. Ten years and a couple of quantum leaps in technology sorted that problem out and the airship’s reason for being floated away without many slow-motion tears being shed.
Before airship lovers go up in flames of anger, here are some definitions. You’ve heard the terms blimp and airship and Zeppelin and dirigible. But what are they? Are they four different kinds of things? Happily, no. In short, they’re all airships. (That was easy.) A Blimp is a big balloon. Its shape is formed by the balloon, and whatever rigidity it does have is due to the pressure of the internal gas. A dirigible is a rigid airship, or semi-rigid or some variation on that. The Hindenburg was a rigid airship, a dirigible with a metal frame. Zeppelins are the brand name that got adopted as a generic term, like Kleenex® (insert registered mark here). They were dirigibles.
Unfortunately, Goodyear figures to mess up everyone’s understanding of which is which. The company’s eponymous Blimp was an actual blimp, but they continue to refer to the new models as the Goodyear Blimp, even though they’re not blimps at all but semi-rigid airships, dirigibles. Why not use that? The Goodyear Semi-Rigid Airship has a ring to it, right. Okay, it doesn’t.
Technologically, airships are kind of awesome. We love the Goodyear Blimp and had a chance to fly on it a few years ago at Oshkosh. It was fun to ride in, an incredible challenge to fly, and, as we mentioned, it’s great at doing what Blimps do so well…spreading the Goodyear name.
But are airships good for more than that? If so, the world has yet to notice.
Despite that, over the years we’ve seen numerous attempts by companies to reintroduce airships of different varieties as a way to move people about. They’ve all failed before they even launched service.
The highest profile one in recent years, the Airlander 10, the biggest aircraft in the world, which has about the same chance of success as everything that came before it. Its design, however, really is interesting, if being simultaneously horrifying and luxurious can be classified as interesting.
The horrifying part? To some folks, it apparently looks like a giant butt, though we’ll let you sort out the anatomy on your own here. The cool part is the passenger deck, with glass floors, 360-degree views, and luxury that doesn’t rival a Gulfstream but rather an Upper Westside apartment, though with even better views and of locales other than Central Park.
The company behind the Airlander survived a crash of one of its airships a few years back and now it plans to introduce its production airship to haul passengers somewhere for some reason we have yet to determine. It will still be the biggest aircraft in the world, though who will book travel on it we do not know.
Technologically, the company calls the thing a hybrid airship, in that it gets its lift from little wing things and the shape of the vehicle itself, and it’s steered somewhat aerodynamically and somewhat by pointing its big engines in varying directions, which they call vectored thrust, just like an F22. We’ll let them have that one.
Will the Airlander 10 be a big success despite the fact that no one seems interested in flying in blimps, er, dirigibles? Well, they seem to think so. And that’s all that matters until the VC runs out.
Perpetual Motion Machine?
Another airship, the Phoenix, is, again, actually cool, but without looking like a butt. It’s not really a perpetual motion machine, but it’s not far from that. The concept that allows it to fly forever isn’t really new, but it hasn’t been used in a full-scale airship, at least to our knowledge. The idea is that the ship goes between being a heavier than air… craft to a lighter than air… craft, allowing it to milk that change of state for propulsion using a complicated series of gas-filled bladders and valves to make the change and relying on solar panels to provide the juice to run the works.
A team of Scottish scientists is developing the craft as a proof of concept, and it’s working. They flew the thing in March and all systems functioned exactly as they’d hoped.
Is the future of such technology bright? Hmmm. While it does have the promise of being able to stay aloft for really long periods of time, which might be worth something to someone, maybe in surveillance, in telecom or some other field of some kind, like being a floating Wi-Fi hotspot in the sky, there currently isn’t much call for such floating cell towers. What’s even worse is that it’s been tried several times before with different kinds of aircraft and nobody seemed particularly interested in those schemes. Maybe this time with this technology it’ll be different.
But probably not.