Boeing gives green light to heavy-lift airship project

 - August 6, 2008, 10:21 AM

Boeing has teamed with a Canadian firm to develop a massive commercial airship capable of lifting an 80,000-pound load and carrying it up to 200 miles.

SkyHook International of Calgary, Alberta, patented the design for the hydrogen-filled, “neutrally buoyant” JHL-40 heavy-lift aircraft and approached Boeing about a development and production partnership. After reviewing the design and crunching the numbers, Boeing decided to jump at the chance to be a part of the program. “We conducted a feasibility study and decided this opportunity is a perfect fit for us,” said Pat Donnelly, director of Boeing’s Advanced Rotorcraft Systems division.

The artist’s renditions of the JHL-40 show a stunning craft that looks quite unlike anything that has been built before. The helium inside the ship supports its weight without payload. Lift generated by four rotors is dedicated solely to hauling the sling-loaded cargo, which could be lumber, trucks, transmission-wire towers or just about anything weighing up to 40 tons. An additional four ducted propellers are used for maneuvering the JHL-40. They will also allow the airship to reach a claimed maximum forward speed of 70 knots, designers say.

Boeing will build two production prototypes of the airship at its test center near Philadelphia. SkyHook will own the aircraft and operate them for customers worldwide. While the JHL-40’s commercial success is by no means ensured, developers say would-be users are clamoring for the craft’s unique carrying capabilities.

Pete Jess, SkyHook president and COO, said a long list of customers is eager for the JHL-40 to enter service. Companies, he said, have indicated that the heavy-load capability of the airship will enable them to start working much sooner on projects that were thought to be 15 or 20 years away. “It’s the only way many projects will be able to progress economically,” he said.

Environmentalists, he added, are likely to applaud development of the JHL-40 because it will reduce the need for new roads in remote areas. Boeing sees the value of the aircraft in its unprecedented lifting capability, which is twice that of the world’s largest and most powerful helicopter, the Russian Mil Mi-26.