The civilized way to fly

I love airships, and I’m not alone.

Award-winning children’s author Kenneth Oppel, for example, obviously loves them: his recent novels Airborn and Skybreaker are set in an alternate world where airships, not airplanes, rule the skies.

Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder must love them, too: his novels Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, set in a vast, hollow air-filled artificial world called Virga, feature vessels that sound much more like Zeppelins than spaceships.

And increasingly, a lot of serious companies with serious money love airships, too.

Unlike airplanes, which rely on the rush of air over their wings to generate lift, airships float in the air like boats float in water: thanks to giant bladders filled with extremely light gas (helium these days, originally hydrogen) they weigh less than the volume of the air they displace.

Henri Giffard of France travelled 27 kilometres in a 44-metre long airship powered by a three-horsepower steam engine in 1852. By the early 20th century, when airplanes were still struggling to stay in the air, airships were making journeys lasting days. The world seemed poised for a great Age of Airships, and indeed thousands of passengers crossed the Atlantic in one of Germany’s giant Zeppelins—but the Hindenburg burst into flame in New Jersey and collapsed in front of newsreel cameras, the age of passenger airships ground to a halt.

There are three flavours of airships: rigid, semi-rigid and non-rigid. Rigid airships have an internal frame that holds the gas bladders. Because of the weight of the frame, early rigid airships had to be a minimum of 120 metres long. (The Hindenburg was twice that size, and aside from its flaming demise, another reason airships fell out of favor was because they also occasionally fell out of the air when those giant internal structures collapsed under poorly-understood stresses.)

A non-rigid airship, or blimp, is a balloon with propellers. Unlike rigid airships, a blimp’s shape is maintained by the pressure of the gas inside it.

A semi-rigid airship is a blimp with a rigid keel.

Airships have continued to find uses over the years, as military reconnaissance platforms, for instance, or as floating billboards/camera platforms above major sporting events.

But recently, those uses have proliferated. The Zeppelin company built its first rigid airship in decades just a few years ago. The diamond-mining company De Beers is using one of Zeppelin’s new 75-metre long helium-filled craft in South Africa to scan for the gravitational anomalies that can signal the presence of kimberlite, the rock that contains diamonds.

According to a January article in the Financial Post, De Beers is seriously considering bringing a Zeppelin to Canada’s North. De Beers has found that the Zeppelin’s slow-speed and vibration-free stability give it a significant advantage over other forms of aircraft, and claims it can do the work of 50 ground crews.

All well and good. But I want giant passenger-carrying airships—and with any luck, I might yet get them.

A company in California called Worldwide Aero Corporation is currently developing the prototype of an airship called the Aeroscraft. It’s an unusual design in that it is not lighter than air: instead, it combines helium buoyancy with lift provided by its aerodynamic shape when it’s being driven through the air by huge rearward-facing propellers. For takeoff and landing, six turbofan jet engines kick in.

The current design, which they hope could take to the air by 2010, could carry a payload of 5,400 kilograms at 120 kilometres per hour up to 5,000 kilometres. A larger version, the “Queen Mary 2 of the air” in the words of Popular Science, could have a range of 10,000 kilometres, a top speed of almost 280 kilometres per hour, and carry 250 passenger in spacious accommodations, complete with luxury staterooms, restaurants, and all the other accoutrements of a surface cruise ship.

There are other interesting airship designs out there. For example, 21st Century Airships Ltd., based in Newmarket, Ontario, has created a unique spherical airship that set a world altitude record for airships of 6,234 meters in 2003. They’re working toward a 14-day non-stop around-the-world flight to raise the profile of what modern airships can accomplish.

Good luck to them. As far as I’m concerned, until we have quiet, comfortable airships in which to cross the seas and continents, we can’t consider ourselves truly civilized.

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