Spring Is Here, And So Are The Airships


Spring is in the air. The trees are going green. Bugs are emerging from beneath the sacred earth, flowers are blooming, and pollen is clobbering our sinuses like never before.

There’s something else in the air…airships?

Yes, it seems airships are making a comeback, nearly a quarter-century after this infamous event effectively put the kibosh on hydrogen-filled blimps. In addition to looking incredibly cool, these newer airships are far more high-tech than your grandfather’s (led) zeppelin—but most importantly, they’re much safer, utilizing helium instead of the volatile hydrogen which so nefariously sunk the Hindenburg.

Companies like Millenium Airship Inc., Aeros, and Lockheed Martin (you may have heard of them) are all developing helium-based freighters equipped with the latest in navigation technology and advanced landing systems which allow the airships to land both on earth and water. All of these models should be in commercial use within a few years.

But are they green? Did you have to ask? Of course they are. Airships can travel as the crow flies to their destination, avoiding the clumsy inefficiency of our traditional ground-based, carbon-laden transportation infrastructure.  According to Peter DeRobertis, of Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics and Skunk Works division in Fort Worth, Texas, “airships give you access and much larger payloads at much lower costs…it’s also a green aircraft. You’re not polluting.”

Are you listening, corporate America?

Source: Inhabitat

About the Author

  • Tyler Massie

    And by “quarter-century” I actually mean “3/4 century.” This is why I’m a writer and not a mathematician.

  • This may be considered a green alternative to our transportation needs in the future but correct me if I’m wrong Helium is cryogenically distilled out of natural gas.

    • I think not. Helium (at least in the US) comes from the national helium reserve, where it is trapped in an underground resevoir.

      Helium is in short supply, and I saw a report some years ago that said we’d empty the reserve in some 25 years, making this revival of airships unlikely (perhaps if they try hydrogen again, at least it is easy to come by).

      • Tyler Massie

        I read somewhere that they’re thinking of trying hydrogen again in some models. I’ll have to do some more research on that, but let’s hope they’ve found a safer way to do it this time around…

        • Ever watched a space shuttle launch when they show the main engines fire up the then the booster rockets light up? You can barely see the H2 and O2 flame from the main engine and then the aluminum based rockets flash into incandescent brilliance. Now go watch the Hindenburg film. What’s burning, H2 or the aluminum and solvent skin of the Zeppelin?

          • Helium is a byproduct of the radioactive decay of Uranium and/or Thorium, is found in NG (Natural Gas) deposits and is in nearly infinite supply in the vast gas fields of the upper midwest and western US.

            Hydrogen was not the combustible which kept burning for many minutes in the Von Hindenberg accident.
            Hydrogen ignited and flashed off and up (visible in the news clip) in seconds – it was the Diesel fuel that powered the engines/thrust of the dirigible which burned on.

            Hydrogen is the proposed thrust fuel for the current gen of airframes because it’s cost to lift capacity ratio in these airframes makes it ideal and extremely economical to operate.

          • as far as the Hindenburg goes i can not comment there just isn’t enough stored uncontaminated information but correct me if im wrong here but if helium in the national reserve is a byproduct of radioactive decay then should it not be a simple matter (assuming politics is left out or ignored)to recommission the worlds nuclear wast for and outdated missiles for the purpose of artificially generating helium?

      • And the helium gets into the national helium reserve by magic? It gets in the helium reserve after being distilled from natural gas.

      • Big D

        And where do you think *that* Helium came from?

        And, where do you think we’ll have to get it from once we finish throwing everything we have onto the market?

        • Helium is the product of nuclear breakdown from Alpha particles.

          yes, natural radioactive material embedded in the ground, gives off alpha particles, which then pick up a few electrons and voila- Helium.

          One way to safely supplement helium with hydrogen is to have an inner bag with hydrogen, with an outer bag of helium. When Hydrogen leaks into Helium, or Helium leaks into the Hydrogen, the result would still be a non-flammable mixture. And the hydrogen bag would give somewhat more lift, and be cheaper than an equivalent volume of Helium.

          • Helium is a product of the spontaneous radioactive decay of Uranium and Thorium.

            Hydrogen in airships will probably be highly compressed and in rigid storage vessels. May even be liquified if that process can be run on a low e budget.

          • This is a joke right? You really don’t believe that significant amounts of concentrated Helium come about naturally as a result of alpha particly decay? As opposed to an industrial process?

            Nor can you believe that hydrogen, even in a bladder inside a bladder of Helium, would truly pass FAA scrutiny as a lifting agent for derigibles?

            What really bothers me is that I am not sure this is a joke post, and that people really believe this inanity.

  • I’ve been seeing articles like this since I was a kid (I’m 50). The airship will never make a comeback and the reason is quite simple. Airships are very, very susceptible to high winds. Even moderate winds can cause problems for airships.

  • Steve

    Have you ever heard an airship?

    The small ones (of Goodyear blimp-size) are ridiculpusly nois… there is a dull rumble in the air even if one is far away. So, unless they can come up with quiet engines, people would get sick and tired of these very quickly.

    • And you think trucks, jets and trains are quiet?

      Odd complaint.

    • There is nothing about airship engines that is inherently noisy – usually the are simply light-aircraft aircooled engines, so they aren’t any more noisy than a Cessna.

      I rode in one of the early Goodyear blimps as a kid in the 1950’s, and it was incredibly noisy inside, but that was because it was a really barebones cabin. As I recall the seats reminded me of schoolbus seats, and there were not even any seatbelts!

      Okay, how does a 12-year-old score a ride in the Goodyear blimp? Simple, you have to have a very attractive older female relative who catches the eye of the blimp pilot! My flight was offered as the inducement for her to go out with him! It never worked out for them, but it worked out just dandy for me!

  • All US airships, even those built for the US Navy in Germany, always used helium. We have large helium sources that other countries don’t have.

  • Green? Well in comparison to what? They will still use fuel for propulsion. That’s just as dirty as any earth bound transport. Till I see somebody run the per seat mile and per ton mile numbers you won’t know if an airship is more efficient than a heavier than aircraft.

    I wait for the day that articles like this ask the hard questions first and not take “It’s green, so its good” on blind faith.

    • @ JohnMc

      It’s not real, so really, its as green as your imagination makes it.

      Personally, I like the idea of airships because I hate flying on jets. They are loud. They are cramped. They fly five miles above the ground at hundreds of miles an hour and one small problem can take the whole thing down.

      Please, give me airships.

    • Greener than, say, aircraft. Since it’s airborne, it’s going through the medium with the least resistance to forward motion outside of the vacuum of space, with no friction from the contact patches required to move something forward on land. Since it’s “lighter-than-air,” so to speak, it uses no energy to keep it aloft, the main reason why normal airplanes use so much fuel. These two factors means that the only power needed for its freight to get to its destination is the energy used to go forward.

      It’s really self-evident when you think about it.

      • Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe is extractable from coal and as thrust fuel is perfect – it makes H20/water as a by product.

  • Keep trying …

    the idea that there is a viable replacement for hydrocarbon transportation fuels is simply a flight of fancy … just another hot air filled airship of hope …

    Keep trying though … maybe, just maybe you’ll learn some phsyics and realize your folly … I doubt it …

    • There are no hydrocarbons fueling the proposed airframes.

      Hydrogen is the thrust fuel.

      When Hydrogen “burns” as a thrust fuel, it combines with Oxygen and forms water.

      The perfect thrust fuel.

  • Airships are way cool (I’d love to have one), but there’s nothing they can do that can’t be done just as well by something else. They’re the answer to a question no one’s asking.

  • So you want it green? It already has a much lower energy per ton of cargo than a traditional airplane. It also has a large surface area. Cover it with thin film solar. During the day solar energy powers the engines and extra solar could be used to charge batteries and/or split water into oxygen and hydrogen to be stored in uncompressed internal gas bags. At night use a fuel cell to reverse the process and power the engines.

    • Phos! You beat me to it……large surface area….large solar capability. Much savings in fuel. Something has to be workable. I had given thought to smaller models as an RV-in-the-air. Imagine parking out for the night as the pic shows by dropping anchor(s) in a mountain lake….Just dreaming I guess….but motor homes range up into the 1-2 Mill area already!

  • Uh huh. Get back to me when an airship can deliver 2 tons of assorted supplies to the back loading dock, with zero ground assist, no filing of flight plans with the FAA, and only two guys and a dolly to do the job.

    Otherwise, you’re talking about competing with rail transport, and that will be very hard indeed to do. What does CSX say in their ads? A ton of freight 500 miles on one gallon of diesel? Be quite a while before an airship can hit that kind of efficiency.

    • indeed but we can try and we can hope

  • While the idea is lovely, airships aren’t that green, nor are they economically or logistically competitive. It would be nice, though.

    As for Mr. Massie’s post-script; “Dammit, Jim! I’m a writer, not a mathematician!” There, fixed it for you. 🙂

  • I gotta admit that I sort of yearn for the simpler days when silver whales such as the USS Akron soared over the Empire State Building, but, in reality, airships would be useful only for very specialized purposes.

    There may be a market for them when heavy-lift capability into an undeveloped area is needed. An airship could land in any sufficiently large clearing, and could lift heavy payloads more efficiently than a helicopter.

    High winds would be a drawback, but need not be a fatal flaw; even without radar and modern autopilot systems, Hugo Eckener and the other Zeppelin pilots of the 1920s knew how to use the wind to their advantage.

  • And let’s not forget those new helium and other taxes that will need be in place to make up for the lost government revenue. The right wing of this country will never let anything that could hurt Big Oil out into the market. Q

  • For advocates of rail- what about the vast stretches of wilderness in places like Alaska and Canada where there is no rail? Over delicate tundra, airships would have zero impact on the terrain. What about rural areas that are far from a railhead? What if you don’t have several thousand tons of cargo to ship, but it’s time-critical?

    For advocates of road carriage- what about the mountainous areas of the West that have sparse roads, and few direct routes? Over this terrain, an airship can still make a direct flight, slashing the distance traveled. Depending on the season, some roads may be closed and drastically increase the distance needed to be traveled.

    For advocates of fixed-wing aircraft- what if there’s no runway or suitable facilities where the cargo needs to go?

    For advocates of rotary-wing aircraft- have you SEEN the cost to operate a medium-lift capable helicopter per hour? You don’t want to know. Many are also limited in lifting capacity at higher altitudes.

    A cargo conversion 747 is the wrong tool to carry 10 pallets of material between cities 25 miles apart. A semi is the wrong tool to carry 2000 tons of coal from Wyoming to Washington. You can easily pick a situation where an airship would be the wrong tool, but in the real world there are likely to be tasks where an airship will be competitive or clearly better- over taiga or tundra where there is no road network, over muskeg where roadbuilding would be slow and cost prohibitive, when there will be a limited number of heavy loads to a remote location (such as an oil rig or remote mining operation), where large runways are absent, and where rail penetration is poor or track scheduling makes time-critical delivery impossible.

    The market will never be large, but airships MAY be uniquely suited to solve some transportation problems. To dismiss them as useless because they will not be the best tool for every job is foolish.

  • …are they green?

    Who cares, the whole “green” thing has become a joke.

    • um no it has not and yes asumeing they are built with the intent to be as you say it “green” then the overall efficiency can be made quite high and direct emissions
      extremely low

  • What ever happened to orlon (a.k.a. artificial muscle) wings and fins and tails and such, seems ideal for locomotion of an airship. I also read an article about leak proof shells (utilizing nanotech) being worked on which would make air ships super efficient as you would only have to fill them one time depending on how good a driver you are.

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  • Deph

    “Yes, it seems airships are making a comeback, nearly a quarter-century after this infamous event” Its almost 1962!