David Learmount/BRAND, GERMANY

While Zeppelin is injecting new life into the traditional airship market sector from Friedrichshafen, CargoLifter is developing a massive lighter- than-air machine to perform work which has never been done by any aircraft - let alone an airship.

The early CargoLifter CL160 airships will be semi-rigid, 260m (850ft) long, 65m in diameter, with a helium volume of 420,000m³ (14.8 million ft3³) and a 160t (350,000lb) payload. They will also handle higher volume loads than the Antonov An-124, the biggest freighter. Like the Zeppelins, they will be produced in Germany, at Brand airfield about 60km (40 miles) south-east of Berlin.

It is what the craft will be able to do with the load, however, that makes the difference. Conceived by leaders in Germany's heavy engineering sector as the answer to the problem of transferring voluminous or very heavy loads from factory to the site where they will be used, the CL160 will be able to lift the load from the point of production and lower it on to its foundations at the point of use, giving the airship its other name: SkyCrane.

The CargoLifter company has nearly completed the construction of its massive purpose-built final assembly hangar at Brand and it flew the relatively tiny proof-of-concept airship "Joey" on 30 October. By 2002, CargoLifter hopes to have the first CL160 operational.

Crucial to the new machine's success will be its control and load exchange system. This will allow the airship to remain stationary overhead while it picks up or sets down its load, exchanging water ballast. The machine will have digital control of its engines, aerodynamic control surfaces, manoeuvring fans and load exchange.

Like all airships, the CL160 has to operate within weather limits, but its ability to loiter until conditions are suitable is crucial. Loitering in this case is cost-effective compared with the use of multimodal land and sea transport, if they were the only alternative options.

CargoLifter is not merely the manufacturer, but is also setting itself up as a logistics company to operate the machines, with a network of bases planned worldwide. The first is Brand, and the second is expected to be near Elizabeth, North Carolina, USA but the latter decision has not been finalised yet.

Source: Flight International