The developers of hybrid airships for years have said that a first customer will soon commit. But despite good progress in designing the revolutionary and eco-friendly solution for a variety of applications, firm orders have remained elusive. Now Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) appears close to securing a first customer. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, Lockheed Martin has given up trying.
Last month, HAV announced the “reservation” of 10 of its Airlander hybrid airships by the Spanish regional airline Air Nostrum. In a statement, HAV chief executive Tom Grundy trumpeted the deal’s significance. “As countries like France, Denmark, Norway, Spain and the UK begin to put in place ambitious mandates for the decarbonization of domestic and short-haul flight, HAV and Air Nostrum Group are demonstrating how we can get there,” he said. Air Nostrom president Carlos Bertomeu said that his company “was exploring every possible way” to reduce its carbon footprint. Last year, Air Nostrum said it would convert 11 of its ATR 72-600 regional airliners to hydrogen propulsion.
HAV employs a staff of more than 60 people working to refine the design and develop operating concepts. They have made substantial progress. HAV says that it learned much from the seven test flights it made in 2016-2017, before the prototype Airlander broke free of its mooring mast and automatically self-deflated. Before the incident effectively destroyed the vehicle, it had accrued flight time of only 14 and a half hours.
HAV’s team has been working on drag-reducing aerodynamics, composite structures, a bow thruster, new piston engines from RED Aircraft in Germany, electrical and avionics systems, and more. It has worked with EASA to define the certification requirements, and with the British CAA on design and production organization approval.
Designed to carry up to 10 tonnes at a cruise speed of up to 80 knots, the Airlander 10 has a 300-foot-long fabric hull filled with helium that provides about 60 percent of the lift. The remainder comes from the vehicle’s distinctive aerodynamic shape, plus some vectored thrust, hence the description “hybrid.” At present, the Airlander does not feature hybrid power, being propelled by four 500 hp turbocharged diesel engines that drive electrical generators. But HAV says that a part-electric powered version—with the two front engines replaced by a 500 kW motor—could enter early service. An all-electric version powered by hydrogen fuel cells would follow by 2030. The company notes that the early production Airliners produce 90 percent fewer emissions than does a conventional heavy aircraft. HAV works with Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham on electric power development.
The company previously has described versions for luxury tourism, civil and military cargo, and surveillance, with relatively small cabins. The agreement with Air Nostrom calls for the transport of 100 passengers. HAV expects the production Airlander to be five percent larger than the prototype, which carried a payload of 10 tonnes but had a smaller cabin.
Despite the progress, important questions remain, such as how an airship secured by a mast can efficiently load passengers or cargo, and how takeoff and landing operations can integrate with conventional air traffic. HAV designed the Airlander with pneumatic skids on the underside of its two outer hulls to make contact with the ground. It plans to replace the skids in the production version with large airbags that inflate for landing and retract inflight. HAV reports that it has begun exploring novel operating locations with Air Nostrum, including waterfronts and greenfield sites. Locations for a landing don’t come more exotic than the North Pole. Swedish company OceanSky Cruises wants to fly “luxury tourists” there using the Airlander. The companies have not explained the practicalities of the scheme, however.
HAV has scheduled delivery of the airships for Air Nostrum starting in 2026. But first, HAV must find enough money to launch production. So far, it has survived on a mix of debt, loans, and equity from “angel investors”; UK and EU government grants and loans; multiple rounds of crowdfunding; and a £20 million insurance payout on the destroyed prototype. After concluding that it couldn’t fund production for such a radical new air vehicle in a conventional way, from launch order deposits, HAV began to offer lease-purchase options. It made an agreement with 2Excel Aviation for the latter to act as the certified operator for early customers. Indeed, the deal with Air Nostrum will, if confirmed, involve a lease, not a purchase. HAV hopes to eventually sell Airlanders for £32 million each.
Meanwhile, HAV continues to search for at least £100 million that it needs to build its targeted initial three airships by 2024. It has sought a “strategic partner” from the aerospace and defense industry to help achieve that, but to no avail so far. An alternative could come from across the Atlantic. Last July, HAV announced that it would launch an initial public offering (IPO) in the U.S., or merge with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) backed by a $200 million post-listing commitment from GEM Global Yield, an investment fund.
HAV has relocated from its first home in one of the iconic airship sheds at Cardington, near Bedford, from where the great conventional airships of the 1930s flew, although the design office remains in Bedford. It has entered “advanced discussions” for a purpose-built flight test and production facility at Doncaster in the north of England, which would presumably be part-funded by regional development grants as part of the UK government’s “leveling up” agenda. The facility would carry the capacity to produce 12 aircraft per year.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin no longer actively markets its LMH-1 hybrid airship. The company’s famed Skunk Works worked on a design for more than 20 years and flew a subscale prototype as long ago as 2006. The LMH-1 design differs from that of HAV’s Airlander in some important aspects, notably the flight control system and an Air Cushion Landing System (ACLS) that uses hovercraft technology to safely secure the airship to the ground. LM envisioned that cargo transport into remote areas would constitute its main market. It designed a cabin with the same payload (20 tonnes) as carried by the C-130 Hercules, and a similar cross-section, but much longer (60 feet). LM emphasized the low cost of operation, not least because of the lack of a need to build roads and airstrips for access.
Like HAV, LM realized that prospective customers might not carry their own AOCs. It appointed airship and balloon specialist Straightline Aviation of the UK as the preferred operating partner. The British company told AIN that it remains active in the airship market and interested in the LM technology.