As he stands near the spot on the grass airfield where the Airlander 10’s second flight came to a bumpy end on 24 August – a nose-first landing described as the “world’s slowest air crash” – Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Chris Daniels admits “the world will be watching” next time the largest aircraft built takes to the skies. HAV – based in the same hangar at Cardington airfield, near Bedford, where the UK’s first airships were built almost a century ago – is working to repair the crew compartment of the 92m-long hybrid airship/flying wing and return the Airlander 10 to its flight test programme.

One of Daniels’ responsibilities at HAV is publicity, but the company has not had to try too hard to generate interest in this latest attempt to create a long-overdue successor to the airships of the pre-war era. The Airlander 10’s maiden flight on 17 August – its first since the cancellation three years ago of the US military programme it was built for – attracted global media attention. So too did the accident a week later, and Daniels says the company will be under intense scrutiny when HAV resumes a roughly 200h flight test programme.

Daniels and his colleagues are hopeful that will happen later this year. Although an internal accident report is being finalised, the company is confident it knows what happened – essentially a mix-up over procedures after a mooring rope became loose during a first landing, leading to the aircraft being operated “outside its envelope” in a hover. That in turn prompted the pilots to attempt a high approach as they climbed and attempted to re-land.

HAV is also also convinced damage to the crew compartment – which took the brunt of the hard landing – can be easily mended.

Although video of the crash indicates extensive damage to the front of the compartment, HAV says it was superficial. While the glass-fibre nose was broken, the rest of the compartment survived intact. As did the control panel, the crew seats and, most importantly, the two pilots themselves, who went on to right the Airlander 10 before switching off the systems and exiting without a scratch. The Airlander is now back in its hangar and panels and equipment have been removed from the crew compartment, stripping it back to its shell.

Shareholders who stumped up £18 million ($24 million) to relaunch the Airlander 10 after the cancellation of the US’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programme “remain supportive”, says Daniels. Although most of the development cost was borne by the US military after prime contractor Northrop Grumman licensed the design from HAV founder Roger Munk in 2010, US export security rules meant original tooling was destroyed. HAV shipped back the dismantled aircraft but has had to make many changes to the original design in its bid to secure a civil certification.

Jokingly dubbed the “flying bum” because from certain angles its double-hull design resembles a giant posterior, the Airlander 10 is, at 92m (302ft) long, larger than an Airbus A380, and it is only close up that its scale can be appreciated. Unlike semi-rigid airships such as the modern Zeppelin, the Airlander 10 gains 40% of its lift from its aerodynamic shape, formed of a helium-filled structure held in place by a cross section with internal diaphragms. Power comes from four 350hp (257kW) Centurion engines: two vectoring units mounted forward on the side, and two fixed at the stern.

Airlander take-off


HAV’s hangar at Cardington – which along with its neighbour is a protected historic building and has been extensively refurbished – may be steeped in history as the home of the R101 airship in the 1920s, but it is far from ideal as a modern aircraft factory. Most of HAV’s 120 or so engineers and other staff are housed in portable cabins along both sides of half the hangar (the other half, and the hangar next door, are let as film studios, a fact that has seen several movie stars popping into HAV during breaks to see the Airlander 10 in the flesh).

While Daniels says a purpose-built factory – still in the Bedford area because of the cluster of skilled staff and suppliers – remains an aspiration, the last thing the company wants to do right now is sink precious funds into bricks and mortar. HAV, he says, has rarely had cash sufficient for more than six months, but has never had a problem raising money when it needs to. Private shareholders include Bruce Dickinson, the frontman of the rock band Iron Maiden, and “two or three billionaires”, says Daniels. Now – thanks to all the publicity – institutional investors are also showing an interest for the first time.

HAV remains confident about its business case post-certification, something it hopes is just a couple of years away. While high-end leisure flights remain a possible use for the aircraft, one of its main potential applications will be as an ultra-long-endurance surveillance platform for the military or other para-public bodies such as coastguard or border patrol agencies. Daniels believes HAV may end up partnering with a tier one supplier of surveillance equipment and avionics to create a demonstrator. It has already been in talks with Leonardo’s Selex ES business to develop a sensor package.

Daniels says many military chiefs are fans of the Airlander and have visited Cardington. But he admits the budgetary constraints that put paid to LEMV also face European governments, including the UK. Despite that, “plenty of allies do have the money for such a programme”, including possibly even the USA. “Any military is looking for persistence. Drones can’t carry the payload and fly too quickly. Satellites have breaks in coverage. The Airlander 10 is a stable platform with oodles of electrical power for communications, and it can stay in the air for a very long time,” he says.

While a military version of the Airlander 10 is one possible application, its biggest market could be as an outsize freight vehicle. Although the Airlander 10 has a payload of about 10 tonnes, plans exist for a variant able to carry 50 tonnes. This would open a market in the remote mining sector, where transporting equipment such as generators and drills is uneconomic across inhospitable terrain, Daniels maintains. “The economics stack up when using the Airlander is cheaper than building a road,” he says.

He admits though that serving that market is some years off, even disregarding the investment needed to develop a larger variant – operators would need the reassurance of a critical mass of spare aircraft, pilots, engineers and ground infrastructure before they would consider taking such a major step. “It’s going to take a few years, but when it comes it is going to be very lucrative,” he says. In the short term, the surveillance market is likely to offer quicker rewards as HAV could partner with an on-board equipment manufacturer with credibility in the defence sector.

Before any of that, however, there is a repair to carry out followed by an extensive flight test programme. Although the Airlander 10 flew for a total of 2h over its two initial flights and achieved a number of benchmarks, including a series of climbs and turns, Daniels says the company is likely to go back to the beginning of the flight test programme. There will be three phases, culminating in a final stage of at least 100h involving flying at night and outside visual flight rules, and taking the Airlander more than 75nm from Cardington at altitudes above 10,000ft.

“We’ll resume the flight test programme, but we’ll do it systematically,” says Daniels. “We know how the aircraft flies – it flies superbly – so we’re pretty confident that the flight test programme will go according to plan.” However, he cautions: “There will be unknown unknowns, as there have been on every flight test programme since Icarus.” The company now feels better prepared, he says. “The silver lining of [the crash] is that we have ruthlessly assessed how we operate and put much more focus on process.”

HAV is using some of the downtime during the repair to make modifications to the crew compartment that it planned to undertake between phase two and three of the flight test programme. These include installing an onboard lavatory for the crew, necessary for long flights. As the prototype aircraft draws closer to certification, HAV plans to build a second example as its first aircraft to go on the market. It will feature further modifications, although the basic aerodynamics of the Airlander will remain the same, Daniels says.

An unfamiliar visitor to the Cardington hangar, seeing the Airlander in the flesh, might think they had stumbled into the next-door film studio instead. But while the airship might resemble a creation for the movies, its developers believe it offers something genuinely transformative in aviation. The Airlander 10’s future is far from secure – HAV has no orders and needs £10 million in the next six months to keep going – but if all goes to plan over the next two years this giant of the skies will be the first certificated aircraft designed and built in the UK for almost two decades.

Source: Flight International