The boundless sky

Those much-admired zeppelins or airships, the giants of the sky that captured humanity’s collective imagination at the beginning of the 20th century, are back...and how! "They will be the future of sustainable aviation," according to Carl- Oscar Lawaczeck, founder and CEO of OceanSky Cruises, the Swedish company that wants to become the world's first commercial airship airline.

22 September 2021

The keys to what is ahead. In the first-half of the last century, one of the most sought-after means of air transportation – before the birth of commercial aviation – was the zeppelin or airship. But this changed when commercial aircraft began to outperform the zeppelins, and these became romantic memories from the past. Some accidents, like the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, also played their part. Nevertheless, everything seems to indicate that, almost a century later, there is a nascent and growing interest in bringing them back. The British aerospace company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) has embarked on renewing the concept and set to work on making it a viable alternative for travel and the transport of goods around the planet. Google cofounder Sergy Brin’s company is also developing a huge airship model.

  • Almost a century later – with research tailwinds from a number of geniuses – it turns out that modern airships may be able to perform a wide variety of functions including humanitarian uses, natural resource extraction and heavy machinery transportation, among many others. It is also possible that once on the market they will be used for passenger transportation.
  • HAV for its part expects to have its zeppelins available by 2025. The company is already in talks with a number of airlines to include these vehicles in their route networks, just as they would with any other aircraft.
  • Although it is still a medium-term plan, one of the potential routes that HAV is considering is between Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, a circuit that takes nine hours by ferry and up to four hours by plane. The airship company could cover the same route in only four and a half hours with its Airlander 10 This option offers travelers not only greater comfort, but also a lower carbon footprint because this type of travel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 75% compared to a conventional airplane.
  • Over the last four plus years Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who is worth more than US$99 billion, has been working to bring his fleet of airships to life at the mysterious LTA Research and Exploration aircraft company at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
  • According to a job posting on the company’s official website, they are working on a 1.5-megawatt hydrogen propulsion system. Brin’s idea is to use these aircraft to transport food and other goods in case of catastrophes such as earthquakes, fires, and for humanitarian rescues. If this airship is realized, it would have the largest fuel cell ever mounted on an aircraft of this kind.

 Commitment to sustainability. This air transportation vessel is designed to be hybrid-electric in its first phase. At a later date (expected to be around 2030), the idea is for it to become zero emissions, with the use of four electric motors. The project’s end goal is a reduction of up to 90% of polluting emissions when compared to other aircraft used for mobility and logistics.

  • As HAV explains, “Just as with all aircraft using lighter-than-air technology, the Airlander 10 consumes much less fuel in flight than conventional aircraft because it requires much less thrust.”
  • The company has already simulated an airship trip from Oslo to Stockholm. While travel time was six and a half hours (by plane it is less than four), it generated only 7% of the CO2.
  • As part of the sustainability conversation, we should also add that the zeppelins are being created to perform transportation and logistics tasks without the need for runways, thereby further decreasing their carbon footprint. To this end, they are equipped with a pulley system that makes them the perfect choice for both sea and land transport.
  • This is advantageous because with the airship there will be no need for trucks to carry material to and from the ports, as many manufacturing companies are betting on being able to transport the container directly from the ship at sea to its final destination.
  • Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) plans to manufacture 12 units per year, starting in 2025. “This is a conservative estimate of the expected market share,” they argue. They also project that this is only the initial step because the idea is to increase production from this initial base. 

Consumer’s choice. There are at least five companies capable of delivering an airship. But the most advanced is Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), manufacturer of the Airlander 10. “We have a reservation agreement in place to guarantee the first device to market.”  The company has already gone through the design phase, flown the prototype, and after making the necessary adjustments is rebuilding the final model, which will be used to obtain its license. OceanSky has a department that will be customizing the craft for use in luxury tourism experiences.

  • The Flying Whales airship (shaped like a blue whale) is also known as LCA60T. It is the product of an ambitious Paris-based startup founded by Sébastien Bougon. Despite its somewhat unusual design, its aim is to reduce risk and costs so that the project actually gets completed. The company also has an impressive list of shareholders that includes the governments of France, China (the General Aviation and Aircraft General Industrial Company of China owns 25%) and Canada. The company has already secured US$320 million of funding to manufacture its aircraft in Bordeaux, France, near Montreal, and in Jingmen.
  • There is also the Airlander 10, which can travel up to 7,500 kilometers and spend five days aloft. How about that? This model has a 10-ton carrying capacity, and is suitable for either 90 passengers or cargo transport. According to the company, “The carrying capacity can be used for cargo, passengers or a combination of both, depending on the customer’s needs.”
  • For its part, the Russian Airship Initiative Design Bureau Aerosmena (AIDBA) company, better known as Aerosmena, has developed a “family” of lenticular-shaped airships capable of carrying 60, 120, 240 and even up to 600 tons. This far outstrips the current capacity of the largest cargo aircraft in the world. Additionally, the manufacturer has made assurances that the design’s shape – literally like a flying saucer – and the use of helium to keep the aircraft aloft allow for absolutely safe flights. The aircraft uses typical helicopter blades to enable its vertical takeoffs and landings as well as for inflight stability.
  • Aerosmena envisions using these aircraft in the transport and logistics segment, since their per hour flight cost is estimated to be 10 to 15 times lower than that of commercial airplanes. Beyond that, its range is over 5,000 kilometers without landing, and it has an airspeed of between 150 and 200 kilometers per hour. Sergei V. Bendin, Aerosmena’s CEO commented that the airship could  “travel around the world in flying luxury hotel conditions.”

North Pole in sight. Nearly a century after explorer Roald Amundsen flew over the North Pole aboard the airship Norge, without landing, OceanSky has set out to complete that unfinished mission. The land in the “north of the north,” as quoted in Forbes magazine. This extraordinary voyage will depart from Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard, and will last for 36 hours. The Swedish operator is already in negotiations with several airship manufacturers.

  • At the moment, there is a pre-agreement for the Airlander 10, which, at 92 meters long, is the largest aircraft in the world. A gondola for 16 passengers and seven crew members will hang from its keel. “It’s conceived as a luxury yacht in the sky,” Carl- Oscar Lawaczeck explained in an interview he gave to Forbes.
  • The airline has already issued 100 Pionner (Pioneer) tickets for the first travelers who want to make this epic journey, which will be available in 2024. The price is 200 thousand euros per double berth. This ticket will also entitle the holder to acquire shares in the company. What a deal!
  • The idea is to make travelers feel like they are in a 5-star hotel, but a hotel that is soaring through the skies. It will have the capacity to accommodate up to 19 passengers for three-day trips. HAV‘s new purpose, in collaboration with the Design Q firm, is to design a comfortable and exclusive space inside the aircraft. But bear in mind that the glass floors may make a journey aboard this airship unsuitable for anyone who suffers from fear of heights.

Some history and trivia. In 1913 a zeppelin was assembled on the grounds of an Oxford University park. And, of course, the artifact was immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. Two and a half decades later, this huge British airship did manage to glide over the center of Oxford, bringing every passer-by to a gawking standstill at the spectacle.

  • In 2007, a local entrepreneur proposed a commercial zeppelin to connect Oxford and Cambridge in one hour. But the world was not yet ready for such a visionary, low-emission flight project.
  • Why is Aerosmena shaped like a flying saucer? AIDBA says that this design allows the “airship” to maneuver more easily and also allows it to land in crosswinds. By not having a front, rear, and side, the aircraft has greater freedom of movement in any direction.
  • The Hindenburg The LZ 129 HINDENBURG was a German airship destroyed by a raging fire while landing in New Jersey on May 6, 1937. The accident resulted in the deaths of 36 people (about one-third of the people on board). It was widely covered by the media at the time and, effectively, was the end of airships as a means of transportation.
  • Back then, Hindenburg-type airships used hydrogen, which is highly flammable, while modern airships use helium, which is not. In addition, the construction materials of the current ones are much lighter and stronger, which augers an auspicious comeback for them as a sustainable, practical and stylish means of transportation.