The twin hangars looming over the Bedfordshire countryside once held the hopes of British aviation for a luxury passenger transport able to connect the empire. Today, next to a modern housing estate in the village of Cardington, the 52m high, green, corrugated iron-clad nonagons appear out of place. They were built to house the ill-fated R101 airship programme in the 1920s. Now, one of them contains the spiritual successor to those superjumbos of their day. The Airlander 10 is the precursor of a hybrid air vehicle its developer believes will finally unlock a commercial demand for lighter-than-air powered dirigibles.
The age of the airship abruptly came to an end in a series of disasters in the 1930s and has never returned. Attempts to develop hybrid successors have failed to find a market beyond tiny niches such as sightseeing and advertising. Despite occasional expressions of interest, the military has been similarly unimpressed.
The story behind Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), developer of the Airlander 10, is one of British eccentricity, determination against the odds, vision and tragedy. Its characters include a persuasive inventor with an office in a portable cabin and a trail of collapsed business ventures behind him, and a heavy metal singer and airline pilot with a penchant for investing in UK aviation start-ups.
Roger Munk, a naval architect turned aircraft designer, developed the Airlander 10 as the latest in a series of airship concepts – none of which enjoyed commercial success. He died suddenly in 2010 aged 62, months before the US Army signed a $517 million contract to buy three of the aircraft from Northrop Grumman, which had partnered with Munk’s firm HAV to build them in the USA.
The tale, however, takes another twist. After the programme was cancelled last year as part of US defence cuts, HAV returned the prototype – which had flown just once, in 2012 – to Cardington. Now, thanks to a £2.5 million ($4 million) grant in February from the UK government and funds from private investors – including Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson – the firm plans to adapt the type so it can be certificated as a 19-seat passenger aircraft by the end of this year.
However, HAV’s real ambition is to develop a bigger sister to the Airlander 10 – a 50t heavy-lift aircraft, the Airlander 50 – and have it in service by the turn of the decade. This, says chief executive Stephen McGlennan, is where the market is. Although the US military is “still interested” and remains in “active dialogue” with HAV, “commercial is the big opportunity”, he says. “The Airlander 50 will be perfect for remote mining, where you need to transport anything more valuable than zinc and there are no roads. We are talking to potential customers everywhere from Canada to west Africa.”
McGlennan, who is leading further fundraising efforts, believes HAV can build a prototype of the Airlander 50 in 2016, and fly it by the end of 2018. With a potential market for up to 1,000 of these types of aircraft, HAV is confident of building – and, using the two Cardington hangars, will have the capacity to build – up to 12 Airlander 50s a year from the start of the 2020s.
HAV owns the intellectual property to the current prototype: “Roger spent a lot of money protecting the IP,” says McGlennan. And, although the design is still protected under US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, these will not cover a commercially-certificated version.
The 92m (302ft)-long, 44m-wide and 26m-high Airlander 10 – also known as the HAV304 – has a helium-filled laminated fabric envelope, which provides up to 40% of the vehicle’s lift thanks to its shape – an elliptical cross-section containing internal diaphragms. These give it a twin-hull appearance from the front – under which the crew and passenger/payload compartment is fixed – and a triple-hull appearance from behind. Power comes from four 350hp (257kW) Centurion engines – two mounted forward on the hull and two on the stern. With a 10t payload capacity, it can loiter for up to five days at an altitude of 20,000ft (6,100m).
The proposed Airlander 50 makes its sibling look positively tiny, with a length of 119m, width of 60m, height of 35m and an envelope capable of holding 103,000m3 of helium. Crucially, it will offer a payload capacity of up to 60t over a range of 3,500km. A 30m-long compartment will be able to carry six standard shipping containers.
Dickinson – who has recently set up a maintenance, repair and overhaul company in Wales, Cardiff Aviation, and has interests in pilot training and a distributorship for Eclipse very light jets – was originally persuaded to invest in HAV by Munk’s inspirational vision. “He was a genius, but permanently cash-strapped,” he recalls. “I invested £250,000 to keep the company going at the time, but I didn’t think I’d see it again.”
Now he hopes his money will help usher in a new era for airships, after eight decades of hegemony by fixed-wing aircraft. “The boot is finally on the other foot,” he says. “The technology is a potential gamechanger.”