Britain leads way in the redemption of the Zeppelin

 

In the far corner of an unlit office on an industrial estate in Bedfordshire, David Burns is sitting in front of a bank of flickering computer screens, his hands grasping a joystick and multiple throttle levers. In front of him is a digital mock-up of an airport.

As he pushes the throttle forward the camera slowly begins to move down the airfield before lifting into the sky.

"There she goes," he says. "All you need is about 30 knots to get her off the ground and she's away." The "she" is a computer-simulated version of what will soon be part of the first fleet of commercial airships to be built in Britain for more than 80 years.

Mr Burns is a test pilot for Hybrid Air Vehicles, a British engineering company that is pioneering a comeback of the dirigible behemoths.

The Cranfield-based company has just signed a multimillion-pound contract with a Canadian firm to supply a brand new range of heavy-lift airships that will carry goods to remote areas of the Arctic. They will be used mainly in the mining industry. The first generation of 300ft-long (91m) ships will be able to lift up to 20 tons, but there are plans for vessels that could lift 10 times that. A British-built airship could cross the Atlantic as early as 2014. But don't call it an airship. "We're really trying to get away from that word," says Gordon Taylor, the company's marketing director. "We like to call them hybrid air vehicles, because they amalgamate both the technology of an aeroplane and an airship."

Mr Taylor's discomfort is understandable. For decades, logistics experts have argued in favour of a return of Zeppelins as an efficient and more than feasible form of transport, but ever since the Hindenburg, left, caught fire in 1937, both the public and investors have been terrified.

In many ways our fear is unfounded. Neither cars nor aircraft were anything like as safe in the 1930s as they are now and yet we never gave up on them when disaster struck and the new generation of hybrid airships coming on to the market are a very different breed from their predecessors.

Barry Prentice of the University of Manitoba builds, tests and studies airships. He describes the plan to supply northern Canada with a fleet of the vehicles as "a tipping point" that will herald the return of commercial Zeppelins.

Zeppelins had aluminium frames under cotton, silk and ox-gut and were filled with flammable hydrogen. The new Kevlar-reinforced, semi-rigid ships are filled with inert helium.

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