On the 6th of May, 1937, the aerospace industry was changed forever. As the infamous Hindenburg airship attempted to land in a New Jersey air dockyard, a small fire broke out aboard the ship. Within a few minutes the entire vehicle was engulfed in flames and 36 individuals inside the airship were killed (1). It was that disaster that seemingly put an end to the short lived era of zeppelins and airships for quite some time.
By far the greatest flaw of early 20th century airships was their reliance on hydrogen gas for buoyancy. Although hydrogen is “lighter than air” it also happens to be extremely flammable. It was this flammability that caused the Hindenburg to burn so violently. Thankfully, modern airships make use of helium, and not hydrogen, to make themselves buoyant. The primary benefit from using helium lies in the nature of the element. Helium is an inert gas, meaning that it will never react with any other element while still being lighter than air.
Fast forward to 2016, some 80 years later, and it seems as if lighter-than-air vehicles could slowly be making a comeback. While most airships nowadays are usually found circling various sporting events, one aerospace company is trying its hand at something completely different. The Worldwide Aeros Corporation is currently working on what it calls the “Aeroscraft”. This 555 foot-long experimental lighter-than-air vehicle is designed to be able to transport large amounts of cargo nearly anywhere in the world (2).
At first, the concept of airships ferrying cargo may seem a bit antiquated with modern infrastructure and technology. However, lighter-than-air vehicles such as the Aeroscraft offer numerous advantages over conventional fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
The greatest advantage of airships lies in their efficient use of fuel. Simply put, airships allow for larger possible payloads at significantly lower costs. The efficiency of an airship is due to its use of helium gas. While fixed wing aircraft must fight the force of gravity in order to stay airborne, airships are able to glide effortlessly through the skies while using a fraction of the energy. This means that an airship such as the Aeroscraft will require less fuel than a similarly sized conventional aircraft.
Another significant advantage of lighter-than-air vehicles is their ability to land nearly anywhere. Where fixed wing aircraft require runways in order to take off and land, airships only require a relatively small landing pad. This means that airships can transport cargo in areas where airports, roads, or railroads are non-existent. For example, the Aeroscraft could deliver supplies across the expanse of the Canadian north, where roads are only operable one month out of the year (3).
While the future of airships is certainly exciting, we may have to wait a little longer before it is actually here. The Aeroscraft underwent testing in 2013 and since then Worldwide Aeros has been perfecting its internal components. Although there is no date set in stone, the Aeroscraft is expected to be ready for operation on a large scale within the next five years. If the Aeroscraft is a success, it could lead to a whole new generation of modern airships.
(1) By Noon on May 6th the Ship Had Reached Boston, and by 3:00 PM Hindenburg Was over the Skyscrapers of Manhattan in New York City (view Photograph). "The Hindenburg Disaster." Airshipsnet A Dirigible and Zeppelin History Site RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
(2) Dockrill, Peter. "Production Is Underway on the World's Largest Aircraft." ScienceAlert. N.p., 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
(3) Dorminey, Bruce. "Is There a Future for Airships?" Scientific American. N.p., 03 May 2011. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
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