How Airships Could Return To Our Crowded Skies...
Airships lost out to conventional aircraft after a series of disastrous crashes. But now safer technology could be the key to their return
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November 15, 2019 - by Mark Piesing for bbc.com
The good news is that soon, the real world may finally drift closer to Pullman's fantasy. In four to five years, all being well, one of the first production models of the enormous Airlander airship dubbed "the flying bum" will be the first airship to fly to the North Pole since 1928. The men and women on board the Airlander are tourists on an $80,000 (£62,165) luxury experience rather than explorers. Tickets are on sale today.
That said, many lighter-than-air projects failed because they were over-hyped, poorly financed and led by visionaries when they needed a more pragmatic Henry Ford. The fact that the technology was still at an early stage made it easy to overlook. The challenge of building giant airships was underestimated.
Those companies that did manage to sell their airships made them painstakingly by hand. There was a demand for bigger airships, but the manufacturers struggled to pay for the development costs. Today's airship manufacturers are determined to do things differently.
The LCA60T is the product of the well-funded and ambitious Paris-based start-up Flying Whales founded by Sébastien Bougon. Flying Whales has an impressive list of shareholders which includes the governments of France, China and Quebec. Twenty-five per cent of the business is owned by the China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co Ltd (Caiga) which has a reputation for aggressively pursuing new technologies.
Flying Whales is intent on doing things differently. The start-up has raised £250m ($320m) to manufacture the airship in Bordeaux, France; near Montreal, Canada; and in Jingmen, China.
It has partnered with one company to develop the methods needed to mass-produce the ships. With another, it has developed a 30m-high (100ft) automated "air-dock" to minimise the infrastructure the airships need on the ground. It has signed a memorandum of understanding with a leading operator of international airports to build 150 airship bases worldwide, who also agreed to buy a stake in the company.
"We analysed a lot of the older airship projects so that we could learn from them," says Michèle Renaud, operations manager at Flying Whales. "We wanted to transport 60 tons of payload and have a
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