The Hybrid Air Vehicles Airlander has suffered a second serious accident during its flight-test program, casting serious doubt over the company’s ability to complete development of this revolutionary machine. The aircraft broke free from its mooring mast last Saturday morning, and drifted across its home base at Cardington airfield near Bedford. A safety system that rips open the hull and deflates the aircraft operated automatically, but the aircraft had only partially deflated before its progress was halted by a hedge on the edge of the airfield.
The fuel and helium within the Airlander was made safe, but the aircraft appears to be a write-off. When AIN visited the scene on November 24, a crew of seven was cutting the fabric and dismantling the wreckage. It may be possible to salvage the engines and the mission module (gondola). The company told shareholders that it is assessing the way forward with its insurers. “We have paused for the time being collecting any payments in respect of the current fundraising,” it continued. Earlier this year, HAV told AIN that that there is “significant wealth” within its shareholder base, including “three billionaires.” After two "crowdfunding" rounds, the company had more than 2,000 shareholders, and was planning a listing on the London Stock Exchange.
The Airlander resumed flying last May after an eight-month grounding following the first accident. That was caused by an out-of-control vertical landing, after a higher-than-normal approach that the pilots flew in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the vehicle’s mooring line dragging on the ground.
HAV made various modifications to the Airlander and its mooring system as a result, including a more powerful and maneuverable mobile mooring mast on a tracked vehicle. It then flew a further two times before re-entering its large hangar at Cardington for further modifications, including a drag-reducing fairing between the hull and the mission module. The huge machine emerged again last week and made a successful sixth test flight on Friday afternoon before being—supposedly—secured on the airfield. The Airlander had flown nearly 13 hours on these six flights.
In the second-phase flight tests that were due to follow, the EASA regulatory agency had cleared the Airlander to fly higher (up to 7,000 feet), faster (up to 50 knots) and farther away from its airfield (up to 75 nautical miles). Upon completion of this second of three flight test phases, Airlander was planning demonstration and display flights. But no firm customers had been confirmed, although the company said earlier this year that it might earn up to $30 million from trial flights for potential customers. HAV told AIN that it was still not certain how many hours would be required for certification; the total would be between 100 and 200 hours, although some of those hours would be customer trials and demonstration, which would be allowed within flight test phase 3.
The two HAV officials responsible for marketing the defense and security applications of the Airlander were at the Dubai Airshow last week, promoting the hybrid vehicle to potential users and investors. Two other companies made significant announcements at the show, about the future use of lighter-than-air vehicles in the Gulf region, but their focus was on sightseeing flights for tourists, at least initially.