July 1, 2013
The Golden Age Of Airships Returns
It seems like a Steampunk dream come true, but the era of the airship is coming around again.
The first airship flight was on July 2, 1900. Airship.com reports that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s LZ-1 flew 18 minutes, covering about 3.5 miles across Lake Constance in Southern Germany. This short flight was the beginning of what would be considered the Golden Age of air travel. Luxury airlines, US Naval airships, and flying aircraft carriers all crossed the skies during the height of the airship craze, which ended with tragedy on May 6, 1937.
Before that day, tens of thousands of passengers had flown over 2,000 flights covering a million miles without a single injury. But the age of the rigid airship ended with the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, when 13 passengers, 22 crewmembers and 1 civilian member of the landing party died.
It’s long been thought that the only airships we would ever see in the skies are the Goodyear blimps, basically giant advertising signs. CNN reports that there is hope, however, as three companies are working on new airships.
The first company, Aeros, is building a cargo ship that combines elements of both “lighter than air” (LTA) technology and traditional fixed-wing planes. To make it just a little more “steampumk dreamy,” the Aeroscraft will have vertical take-off and landing like a helicopter. Igor Pasternak, the Kazakhstan-born engineer who developed the idea, says this means no runways or airfields are necessary.
The Aeroscraft will be a rigid-hulled dirigible, 554 feet in length with a payload of 66 tons. The ship will have a cruising speed of 120 knots with a range of 3,100 nautical miles. Pasternak envisions a version that will handle 250 tons of cargo in the future.
“It’s a little bit like my dream vehicle,” he said.
“In natural disasters and other situations where infrastructure is non-existent, the Aeroscraft could be used to bring in emergency supplies: food, water, blankets — 66 tons of relief at a time,” explained the company’s communications director John Kiehle.
The company says that for now, the ships will be logistical in nature, moving cargo, military troops and relief supplies – but they have dreams of floating hotels and sky yachts.
The second company working on airships is Altran. The Sun Cloud is currently in research and development, but when it flies, it will be powered by solar energy. The Sun Cloud is also being designed to carry large cargo shipments over long distances like the Aeroscraft, but with one major difference. The Sun Cloud with be remote controlled, basically a supersized drone.
“We’re not looking to replace traditional forms of cargo transportation,” explained the program’s manager, Ali Jafaar. “Container ships can carry 500,000 tonnes at a time — we’re not looking to do that.”
Solar power means that this ship will move slowly, approximately 25mph and only during the day. Since the company is only thinking of moving cargo, and not passengers, however, that slow pace is entirely feasible. Jafar admits, though, that the Sun Cloud is not likely to get off the ground for a number of years.
Contestant number three is US defense contractor Raytheon, the same company that brought us the first microwave oven, the Radar Range. Raytheon is planning on putting aerostats — airships tethered to the ground — in the airspace over Washington D.C., loaded with surveillance equipment.
The aerostats are part of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missle Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) program. Jeez what a mouthful! JLENS’s mission is to scan the skies, seas and streets for signs of danger.
“An airplane can only stay up for so long, but JLENS is persistent,” said Raytheon’s Keith McNamara. “Because it’s tethered, with its power source on the ground, it can stay up there 24/7 for 30 days at a time. And because it’s so much higher up than radar on the ground, it can see much further, hundreds of kilometers, as opposed to tens of kilometers.”
While the idea of tethered (and therefore vulnerable) surveillance drones over US soil doesn’t thrill me, the steampunk kid inside is jumping for joy
It’s been 90 years since the first American dirigible, the USS Shenandoah, flew – and it seems like the age of the Airship has come around again.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com