Visitors might have to wait a few more years for the Airlander 10’s much anticipated Farnborough debut, but developer Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) insists that the world’s largest flying machine remains on course for service entry by 2029 – more than two decades after its British inventors began constructing the first example for what they hoped would be a lucrative US defence contract.

These days, HAV is more cautious about making promises than in 2016, when executives suggested the 92m (302ft)-long aircraft would make a high-profile flypast at the event in July. That was just before two injury-free accidents in quick succession during early airborne evaluations set the programme back by years.

The setbacks forced the UK-based company to abandon flight testing after seven sorties and – if not quite return to the drawing board – at least start anew on creating a certifiable aircraft.

After exhibiting at the 2022 show, the start-up will be back at this year’s Farnborough. Its attendance follows a series of positive developments that have given the hybrid airship’s admirers, small investors, and prospective customers hope that it could soon be gracing the skies again in its updated guise.

In February, HAV said it had begun the type-approval process with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). This makes its Airlander 10 not only the world’s first commercial airship to be assessed by regulators in the modern era, but the first large aircraft to go through the process with the CAA since the UK’s departure from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). HAV will seek concurrent European and US endorsement.

HAV also in February reinforced its order book with a “reservation agreement” with French eco-tourism company Grands Espaces that will see it take one of the first three Airlander 10s off the production line. The outfit, which arranges trips for small groups to wilderness territories, said it had been negotiating the deal with HAV for four years.

A month later, the company revealed the precise location of its planned factory in Doncaster, after naming the South Yorkshire city as its preferred new home in 2023. HAV will produce the Airlander 10 at a purpose-built factory at Carcroft Common, the site of a former colliery. Construction is likely to begin later this year.

Other significant would-be customers include Spanish regional airline Air Nostrum, which has a commitment for 20 Airlander 10s, each fitted with around 90 seats. A public sector organisation called the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (Hitrans) also said in April it was reserving six early production slots with a view to using the 10t-payload Airlander 10 for passenger and freight services connecting communities in the sparsely populated north of Scotland.

BAE Systems also last September issued a memorandum of understanding to “explore the potential” of Airlander 10 in the defence market.

That development was significant because the Airlander 10’s predecessor was conceived as a loitering military surveillance platform. Twelve years ago, the aircraft – developed by HAV under subcontract to Northrop Grumman for the US Army’s Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programme – made its maiden flight over New Jersey.

However, scarcely had it taken to the air before the US military’s priorities changed and the LEMV contract was cancelled. HAV, which had been set up in 2007 to work with Northrop on the LEMV bid, bought back the prototype, minus its proprietary surveillance systems, with a view to relaunching the platform as a commercial project – albeit with military special missions as one of three target markets, alongside VIP tourism/regional connectivity and commercial logistics.


Tom Grundy – a former Airbus and BAE engineer who joined the young company in 2013 and became chief executive six years later – recognises the “truly special” significance of “sitting down” with the CAA to discuss the certification process for the first UK-designed large aircraft since the British Aerospace BAe 146 regional jet more than 40 years ago.

Another design, Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace’s electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) VX4, may beat HAV to the distinction of being the CAA’s first certificated type this century. However, Grundy welcomes the fact that HAV is “not on our own” in going through the type-approval campaign.

HAV is also collaborating with cargo dirigible developer Flying Whales of France to help EASA come up with a common type certification for modern-day airships, which the CAA will tap into.

Although HAV will retain engineering and administration offices in Bedford, its move to Yorkshire will see it abandon its spiritual home – the prototype was produced in the same Cardington hangars where the original UK airship, the Short Brothers R31, was built in the closing stages of the First World War.

However, those more than century-old hangars were unsuitable for volume production, and HAV began looking for an alternative site in 2017, after the crashes which put an end to the first phase of flight testing.

The company had considered nearby Cranfield airfield – owned by the aerospace university and soon to be the new base of military maintenance and engineering house Marshall Aerospace and Defence, which is relocating from Cambridge. However, Grundy says HAV could not find a big enough site there. The currently shuttered Doncaster Sheffield airport – formerly the Royal Air Force’s Finningley base – was another rejected candidate.

The new 20ha (50 acre) facility, near the former mining town of Adwick le Street and on land earmarked by the local authority for industrial development, will be capable of producing 12 Airlander 10s annually. There will be the potential to “scale up fairly easily” to double that, says Grundy, who spoke to FlightGlobal at HAV’s current headquarters in a post-war office block on the edge of Bedford town centre. The investment will, according to HAV, create more than 1,200 jobs.


Grundy, however, is circumspect when it comes to a precise schedule for the start of production. “We still have to come back with a refined view of timescales, but nothing takes us away from our plan for a four-year process to service entry, with first flight [of a production-specification aircraft] in year three,” he says.

HAV is still finalising the design for the plant, but the idea is that it will be “as modular as possible”, with some key suppliers on site or in nearby facilities. Grundy says 87% of materials for the aircraft have been sourced – including the hull’s 8,100sq m (87,000 sq ft) of laminated fabric and the composite frame for the gondola suspended between the twin hulls that contains the cockpit and passenger cabin as the key structural components.

Grundy says HAV’s current 24-strong orderbook equates to “well over $1 billion”, an amount that “has exceeded my expectations of where I thought we would be at the start of mobilisation”.

However, with no revenues, the post-LEMV business – which was seeded by early adopter investors including Iron Maiden frontman, pilot, and entrepreneur Bruce Dickinson – has had to rely on an exhausting series of financing rounds, the latest of which HAV is closing. “That will allow us to move forward again,” says Grundy.

While HAV has also benefited from a local authority loan for the production facility, Grundy admits “scaling up finance is still the pacing item”. He concedes that the company is fishing in the same funding pond as eVTOL and other advanced air mobility (AAM) developers – largely tech investors looking for the next big thing.

At some point, there will be a public stock offering, because it is “the right way to build a business like this”, but Grundy will not commit to timings. “We have to make sure our plans are robust,” he says.

Air Nostrum remains HAV’s most significant customer by far. After announcing a commitment for 10 aircraft just before the last Farnborough air show, it doubled that order last year. The Valencia-based airline – which operates ATR and Bombardier CRJ regional aircraft – plans to use the 4,000nm (7,400km)-range Airlander 10 to launch services within Spain and from Malta to southern Italy and North Africa.

HAV markets the Airlander 10 around three key selling points: the platform’s adaptability – it can serve roles from military observation and remote cargo operations to high-end tourism and regional travel; its ability to take-off and land almost vertically from the likes of water and tundra with little or no ground infrastructure; and its sustainable credentials.


Although initial examples will run on kerosene engines, HAV plans to offer hybrid-electric and eventually all-electric options.

The company is always keen to stress that, while the Airlander 10 fits into a broad tradition of rigid dirigibles that goes back to the Zeppelins and other early 20th century airships, it is strictly a hybrid of aeroplane, airship, and rotorcraft, deriving its ability to stay airborne from a combination of aerodynamic lift, lifting gases, and vectored thrust. Around 40% of its lift is generated by the passage of air over its hull, like a conventional wing.

Multiple helium-filled ballonets or compartments within the 44,000cb m (1,550,000cb ft) twin hull aid buoyancy, as the gas expands with temperature and altitude changes, while at lower speed and close to the ground, power from vectored engines provides additional lift and manoeuvrability for take-off and landing.

The sustainability case features prominently in all Airlander 10 publicity. Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham are designing 500kW electric motors that HAV hopes from 2026 will begin to replace the front two of the Airlander 10’s four RED Aircraft A03 kerosene engines. Around the turn of the decade, a full-electric version will be available, turning the platform into a zero-emission aircraft capable of delivering 200nm (370km) range with a 10t payload, says HAV.

The Airlander 10’s contribution to a low-carbon international tourism industry was a major part of the appeal for Grands Espaces, while for Hitrans – which will work to find an operator for the hybrid aircraft: possibly Scottish carrier Loganair, which serves many subsidised public service obligation routes – “the integration of Airlander 10 will support the region’s goals of net-zero air transport by 2045”.

An ability to operate the Airlander 10 with minimal ground infrastructure was also a factor for Hitrans. Many remote parts of Scotland are served by basic airstrips (in one case, Barra, a beach), accessible to only the smallest commercial aircraft, such as Britten-Norman Islanders or De Havilland Canada Twin Otters.

Hitrans believes there is an opportunity with the up to 90-seat Airlander 10 to increase passenger and cargo capacity at these airports and open routes to destinations with no conventional landing strip.

That ability to reach places other aircraft cannot also plays well for BAE, whose FalconWorks advanced research and technology unit is leading the study into a possible Airlander 10 acquisition. The hybrid airship, suggests HAV, “offers mobility, deployability and flexibility in support of maritime, coastal, and land-based expeditionary warfare in areas where current platforms are challenged”.

In cargo, HAV’s great hope is the Airlander 50, a future concept with five times the payload of its sibling – 50t, or the equivalent of six shipping containers. Grundy hopes to have the larger variant in service by 2032 and believes that freight and logistics will end up representing two-thirds of HAV’s market, with potential customers including the likes of African farms who need to move fresh produce swiftly to ports.

“Go forward 10 or 15 years and Airlander 10 will be seen as our entry product,” he says.


From bringing an entirely new type of aircraft to certification and maintaining cash flow through the critical first stages of production to converting the curious into committed customers, HAV still faces a multitude of challenges before its Airlander 10 can be a success.

However, its entry into service will be the culmination of a decades-long struggle to create a lighter-than-air industry in the UK. The father of the Airlander 10, Roger Munk, who died suddenly in 2010, aged 62, without seeing his invention take to the skies, had spent over 30 mostly frustrating years trying to get airship businesses off the ground.

Today, with the world finally embracing the idea of disruptive, sustainable flight, Munk’s successors are confident that his baby can become a giant of a burgeoning AAM sector and play some small part in helping aviation reach its net-zero goals.