Farnborough Air Show

Hybrid Aircraft Puts Brave Face on Setbacks

 - July 13, 2018, 8:00 AM
The Airlander 10 prototype taking off on its first flight in the UK in August 2016. Only five more sorties followed before it was destroyed in November last year.

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is exhibiting at the Farnborough Airshow (Hall 1 Stand 1520), but the prototype Airlander 10 is not at the show. It was destroyed last November after breaking loose from its mooring mast at Cardington airfield. So the huge, elliptical bi-hulled shape misses its chance to dominate the static park in what could have been its first airshow appearance.

HAV is putting a brave face on the situation and has maintained the workforce, while remaining focused on refining the design of a production version. But the prototype had completed only six flights from Cardington totaling 11 hours, 50 minutes. A serious mooring accident in August 2016 had already forced an eight-month delay in flight-testing.

HAV, which still lacks a launch customer for Airlander, previously said that at least 100 hours would be required to type-certify the revolutionary machine with EASA.

The promise of a large, helium-filled airship that is designed to gain up to 40 percent of its lift aerodynamically is seductive. In a recent presentation, Tom Grundy, HAV’s executive director, strategic customer solutions, outlined the need for persistent airborne platforms that can provide communications and surveillance at low operating cost. The Airlander “burns 25 to 30 percent of the fuel of an equivalent aircraft,” he claimed. Moreover, he hinted that electric propulsion is in the company’s sights, saying, “You’ll hear more as we progress this year.”

The Airlander 10 was originally designed by HAV under subcontract to Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Army’s Long-Endurance Multipurpose Vehicle (LEMV) requirement, which was essentially surveillance. But it flew only once in the U.S. for 90 minutes, before the program was canceled. HAV shipped the deflated air vehicle to the UK, reassembled and renamed it, and made some modifications.

Grundy said that whereas the LEMV was designed to carry a payload of one metric ton to 20,000 feet for 21 days, HAV is currently aiming to carry 3 metric tons to 10-14,000 feet for five days. The LEMV was to be manned for test and ferry flights, but unmanned on missions. The redesigned Airlander will be a manned surveillance platform. HAV has also been exploring a maritime long-range search-and-rescue role that could include dropping life-support equipment.

HAV has in parallel been eyeing luxury tourism. Sightseeing has been the main application for the conventional airships that the reborn Zeppelin company has been flying from Germany for the past 20 years. But HAV sees an “upmarket” application and is designing a new version of the Airlander’s cabin accordingly.

Many enthusiasts for hybrid aircraft have considered the most promising application to be “remote-lift.” Hybrids employ vectored thrust that can deliver cargo almost vertically onto unprepared surfaces in hard-to-reach areas, at far lower cost than helicopters and airlifters like the C-130. They can even beat the cost of trucking if the expense of building dedicated long-distance roads is factored into the calculation.

Lockheed Martin has designed and marketed a 20-metric-ton payload Hybrid Airship for exactly this purpose. But it has not yet found a launch customer, perhaps because of the worldwide downturn in mineral exploration in remote areas in recent years.

The LEMV, and therefore the Airlander 10, was not designed for this market. The “10” refers to its potential maximum payload of 10 metric tons, and HAV says that there is already potential for the current design to deliver (for instance) humanitarian aid. But HAV also says that it has completed “significant design work” on a larger, tri-hulled Airlander 50 that could vertically deliver 60 metric tons in six 20-foot ISO containers on turboprop power.