Ten years last August an airship with a difference made its maiden flight from New Jersey’s McGuire AFB. The prime contractor for the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) – a giant airborne surveillance platform the US Army intended for Afghanistan – was Northrop Grumman, but the firm behind the innovative design was an obscure UK start-up, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV).
Months later, the US Army cancelled the programme, and the structure minus its sensitive equipment returned to its inventor. Bedford-based HAV has spent the decade since trying to relaunch the concept as Airlander 10, a 91m (300ft)-long flying hull that combines First World War-era lighter-than-air technologies with aerodynamic lift and vectored thrust.
The 10 years since LEMV have been a marathon mission for HAV, involving a huge fund-raising effort – including from dozens of enthusiast investors – plenty of publicity initiatives, and several flights of a prototype that ended up damaged beyond repair after two hard landings. Now, finally, HAV is poised to start producing the world’s largest aircraft this year, and has its first customers lined up.
HAV has earmarked the first three production units for unnamed luxury tourism operators, while Spanish regional airline Air Nostrum has reserved 10 slots. With “90%” of suppliers on board, the company is about to announce the location of a factory in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where it hopes to be building “at least” 12 examples annually by 2028, says chief executive Tom Grundy.
Transitioning from a research and development start-up to a volume manufacturer demands a massive step up in financing. This – as well as convincing potential customers in the military, leisure, and logistics sectors of the platform’s game-changing potential – has been the biggest task for Grundy, a former engineer with Airbus and BAE Systems, who took over the top job in 2019.
HAV is “constructing a big forward investment programme” to take Airlander 10 to production and support its service entry. As part of that effort, the company will soon seek an initial public offering (IPO) or a merger with an already listed special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) – an option chosen by a number of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) developers.
In 2021, HAV secured its first major institutional investor, a firm called Global Emerging Markets (GEM), which agreed to inject $200 million in exchange for around half the equity in the company following the IPO. These funds will help HAV retain production aircraft on its balance sheet and lease or charter them to operators. This, says Grundy, hugely widens the potential customer base.
While the 10t-payload Airlander 10 certainly does not fall into the eVTOL category, Grundy sees HAV as part of a wider emergent advanced air mobility movement, in that it uses disruptive technologies to offer a sustainable alternative to conventional aircraft across a number of markets. He believes Airlander 10’s environmental friendliness is its unique selling point.
Four kerosene-powered RED A03 engines from German piston specialist RED Aircraft will power the initial production aircraft. However, shortly after certification, HAV plans to swap out the front two units for a pair of 500kW electric motors Collins is developing to create a hybrid-electric version of Airlander 10. By the end of the decade, Grundy wants to have available an all-electric option.
At last July’s Farnborough air show Collins revealed a prototype of the Airlander 10 motor, which it is designing with the University of Nottingham with funding from the UK government’s Aerospace Research and Technology programme. HAV is aiming to have the motors certificated and ready to install by 2026.
Because the helium-filled hull and aerodynamic lifting surfaces keep Airlander 10 aloft, the first aircraft will emit 75% less than a conventional aircraft with a similar payload, says Grundy. The hybrid configuration will boost that to 90%, while an all-electric version will be “zero emission”. Rivals may be faster, but the latter will deliver a 200nm (370km) range with a 10t payload, he says.
The Doncaster factory – HAV has shortlisted two greenfield sites – will have five assembly bays. Other than the engines, there are two key supply chains: one for the hull and one for the underslung composite cabin, which will be able to accommodate 100 passengers in airliner-style seating. HAV also has released concepts of yacht-style interiors, complete with sleeping compartments.
Grundy admits HAV’s schedule has shifted to the right several times since it announced plans to certificate Airlander 10 in 2016. “I’m on record as expecting it to start production last year,” he says. “But it’s a big project and we have set a high bar. It’s a whole new category in the way we travel and this is the first time this technology has gone into rate production.”
He hopes to build the first three test aircraft by 2025, with production of customer examples to be up and running in 2026. The company plans to reach full capacity of 12 units by 2028. Grundy is confident the handful of sorties with an earlier prototype in 2016 and 2017 will streamline the approval process. “We’ve done a lot of the work to de-risk flight testing, including in the regulatory area.”
Although its predecessor emerged for a specific military mission, HAV has always envisaged a wide range of uses for Airlander 10, ranging from a goods transporter able to access remote sites such as mines, to a telecommunications and surveillance platform or an airborne cruise ship for upmarket sightseers.
However, the Air Nostrum commitment revealed a market HAV had not initially considered. “What we hadn’t anticipated is that the aircraft’s ability to drastically cut emissions has created openings,” says Grundy. So does he believe it is a credible competitor to fixed-wing airliners? “We think of it more as a premium ferry than a replacement for regional aircraft,” he says.
Although Air Nostrum’s provisional agreement, announced last summer, is not a firm order, it “is as close as you can get without having a production line up and going”, says Grundy. The deal would see Air Nostrum take delivery of aircraft over five years from 2026. The appeal is environmental, with the company looking to “explore all ways” to reduce its carbon footprint.
Grundy will not reveal his tourism customers – effectively Airlander 10’s launch operators – but he expects to announce their names this year. “We have businesses who want to be selling tickets now,” he says. The market is an area where the aircraft’s low speed and 10,000ft cruising altitude, along with its roomy, large-windowed passenger cabin, creates a clear advantage.
HAV and a number of entities in the Scottish Highlands and Islands have also launched a study to look at Airlander 10’s potential to connect remote communities. While small passenger aircraft serve some towns and islands in the region, HAV believes Airlander 10’s ability to operate on water, as well as at non-airport locations, would increase connectivity for many who rely on roads or ferries.
Cargo is where HAV sees about two-thirds of its customers coming from. Again, Grundy does not envisage Airlander 10 competing with freighter aircraft, but other modes of transport, particularly to remote or hard-to-access destinations. “There are loads of instances where the only viable alternative for freight is overland, and that is where this technology transforms,” he says.
In this market, HAV’s big future play is the Airlander 50, a concept with five times the cargo capacity of the Airlander 10. Last July, HAV launched a “partner programme” with infrastructure consultancy AECOM and African fruit supply group Blue Skies Holdings to “propel forward the design”, with the aim of “moving significant engineering resource” into the project by next year.
Grundy says HAV is “receiving regular enquiries” about the Airlander 50, which he envisions being in service by 2032. He describes it as a “key programme” for the business that is “designed to drive its way into the logistics market with scale”. Missions for the six shipping container-capacity aircraft could include moving fresh produce from inland African farms to sea ports, he believes.
Another possible longer-term development for HAV is an autonomous version of Airlander 10, something Grundy believes would have huge potential in the military market as an observation platform. Even without remote piloting, the aircraft’s generous cabin, with space for sleeping and living quarters, creates the potential for manned military missions lasting several days.
Grundy says that, after the effort to finesse the design and tell the world about Airlander 10, the priority now is “building a business, not an aeroplane”, including in areas such as aftermarket support and supply chain. Then the focus will move to generating revenue and a return for HAV’s patient shareholders.
Other than Britten-Norman’s modest operation in Lee-on-Solent, the Doncaster site will be the UK’s first civil aircraft final assembly line in a generation, since BAE built the last Avro RJ in 2001. For Grundy that is significant. “I don’t think we always appreciated the sheer scale of what we are doing,” he admits. “We are building something that will be truly special.”