Oceans in the sky
In the year 2020 a visitor to Vail might look upward and, dreaming of oceans in the sky, see a giant ship traversing the I-70 corridor. It’s not an illusion … the visitor is seeing an industrial airship laden with timber from a harvesting operation that is devoid of trucks, helicopters and logging roads. This ship is over 800 feet long and is carrying 200 tons of raw timber, the equivalent of ten truckloads, to a distant mill for processing.
Later on, the ship will return to the mill and pick up the processed lumber for delivery to a West Coast port. By carrying these enormous loads through the air this ship and its sisters are keeping thousands of tons of freight off of the nation’s roads.
Elsewhere, other airships throughout the world are carrying loads of pipe to distant oil and gas operations, helping to suppress wildfires, providing mobile hospital services, spearheading disaster relief, patrolling the nation’s borders and carrying out scientific research. In some areas smaller ships are providing mass transit where trains once rolled. The new age of Lighter Than Air (LTA) transport is upon us, and the world is changing.
And it may not be a dream.
“Airships would be an excellent application for timber harvesting and movement of freight across the state, especially heavy oversized cargo” says Gil Costin, Founder/President and CEO of Millennium Airship Inc., a Washington State based firm with SkyFreighter designs ranging from 30 to 500 ton lifting capacities on the drawing boards.
“We see markets in prospecting and mining, oil exploration, remote construction projects – anywhere there are no roads. There’s strong interest among communities in the far north where the permafrost is changing and the roads are no longer reliable. How else are they going to be supplied?”
The reader might be excused if he or she knows little of this. Although a proposed new generation of LTA ships, or aerostats, is on the drawing boards of several companies around the world, coverage of the subject has been confined largely to military and specialized aeronautical publications. But if you look closely you will find that companies like Millennium Airship, Lockheed Martin, AeroVehicles and Ohio Airship, among several others, have proposed designs with applications in telecommunications, border control, construction, freight transport, disaster relief, mass transit and heavy lifting, among many others.
Aerostats displace air to gain lift, just as ocean-going vessels displace water to become buoyant. Aerostats will fly at altitudes from sea level to above 70,000 feet and will be able to remain airborne for extended periods, from days to months and even longer.
Airships, the larger aerostats, will generally fly up to 9,000 feet for days at a time. Unlike their dirigible cousins from the first half of the 20th century, which used flammable hydrogen for lift, modern airships propose a hybrid combination of non-flammable helium and aerodynamics to become airborne and control their flight. Space age fabrics, sophisticated vector control systems, solar power and advanced computer engineering are just some of the components shaping modern airship design. And the vehicles will emit very low emissions and noise levels.
The impetus for building this new fleet is coming from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its WALRUS Program, which will study the feasibility of a new air vehicle capable of transporting 500-1,000 tons of military payloads across 12,000 miles within seven days. This effort, based largely upon the ongoing Middle Eastern war experience and termed “fort to fight,” will involve building a new type of aircraft with hull lengths up to 1,000 feet. These Hybrid Ultra Large Aircraft, or HULAs, will be the largest flight vehicles ever built. The vehicle meeting the DARPA specification will have true vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, meaning that it will be able to take off and land on any reasonably flat surface, including water. This freedom from the need for airport infrastructure is one of the main driving forces behind the LTA push.
As part of its plan the military is calling for long range cooperation with the civilian sector that could result in an economically viable product with a wide range of uses. This is attracting companies like Millennium Airship to the table.
Gill Costin, a pilot with 26 years of flight experience in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, sees a market beyond that of Walrus in the world-wide movement of 15 billion tons of air freight which is expected to double in the next 20 years.
Costin is less enthusiastic about doing business in Colorado’s mountains, although he admits his focus simply remains elsewhere at the moment. Life is simpler for a nascent airship builder between sea level and 4,000 feet, where helium is most buoyant.
“You run into problems at altitude,” he says, speaking of transporting people.
The Colorado State Department of Transportation does not even mention airships as a possible alternative in its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft PEIS) on the future of the I-70 Mountain Corridor. Wouldn’t a fleet of airships servicing the entire Western Slope be preferable to a $4 billion monorail that just services the I-70 corridor?
But there are issues to piloting airships in the high county.
“The cabins would have to be pressurized and this adds to the cost significantly,” says Costin.
Further, there’s the issue of rough mountain weather, although airships could fly in the same conditions as airplanes.
“Your on-time factor would suffer. If your schedule is based on a speed of 100 KTS and you hit a 60 KTS headwind, you’re only doing 40 KTS.”
Still, Costin admits he isn’t dismissing the idea entirely and says that a 20-ton lift capacity aircraft could work as a ferry. The idea has been floated in Washington State. After all, the great Zepplins flew millions of passenger miles in unparalleled luxury all over the world and in all weather with lesser technology in the first half of the 20th century, an effort Costin would like to duplicate.
“If we had the ship right now we’d be traveling New York to London and Paris and we would be booked solid,” says Costin.
“And the romance, the ‘cool’ factor would really be there,” he says. Passengers would be traveling on an airship with 300 to 500 tons of lifting capacity and spanning 1,000 feet. He envisions 300 luxury cabins, restaurants, bowling – even a swimming pool, and no jet lag. The cost would equal a round trip ticket on the now defunct Concorde, around $8,500.
DARPA wants a working model of its mega-airship by 2008. To stay in the race, Millennium is seeking seed money that will enable it to raise $130-150 million, enough to build two prototypes of 30 to 50 tons. Meanwhile, a lot of questions remain to be answered, such as how much helium is actually available to build how many airships.
“There’s been too much pie-in-the-sky in this industry,” says Costin. “We need to be realistic about what we can accomplish.” Which means that, for most of us, airships will remain fascinating phantoms that may, some distant day, appear on the horizon and proceed to conquer the oceans in the sky.
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