The inventor who's putting blimps back on the radar

If all goes to plan, we could see a fully British-built airship crossing the Atlantic as early as 2014

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 on the east coast on America. As he pushes the throttle forward the camera slowly begins to move down the airfield before lifting off into the sky above.

"There she goes," he says. "All you need is about 30 knots to get her off the ground and she's away."

The "she" this softly spoken Scottish pilot is referring to is a computer-simulated version of what will soon be 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 of yesteryear with a modern twist that will make them both safer and significantly more efficient than their predecessors.

The Cranfield-based company, that struggled for years to be taken seriously by the aviation industry, 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, where roads are non-existent.

They will be used mainly in the mining industry to ship in heavy equipment and take away raw material from some of the most remote communities in North America. 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 ten times that.

It sounds like something straight out of a Philip Pullman novel – giant airships floating near silently through the ice-cold skies of the Arctic – but if all goes to plan we could see a fully built British airship crossing the Atlantic as early as 2014.

Except don't call it an airship. "We're really trying to get away from that word," says Gordon Taylor, the company's Canadian-born, smooth- talking marketing director. "If anything they're closer to airplanes, there's a fundamental difference. 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 enthusiasts and logistics experts have argued in favour of a return of Zeppelins as an efficient and more than feasible form of transport that could be a vital bridge between commercial jets and slow-moving ocean liners.

But ever since the Hindenburg caught fire in 1937 as it docked in New Jersey, both the public and investors have been terrified of revisiting such a form of transport.

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. Equally when The Titanic sunk we didn't abandon ocean liners. But when the Hindenburg crashed to the ground, so did the entire airship industry. What made that tragedy different was that the hydrogen-filled airship ignited and crashed in front of a host of film cameras and photographers at a time when the modern media has just started to wield unparalleled influence.

Fast forward 70 years and the new generation of hybrid airships coming on to the market are a very different breed from their predecessors. The Zeppelins of the past were built on a rigid aluminium frame out of cotton, silk and ox-gut and were often filled with highly flammable hydrogen. They were notoriously leaky and had none of the navigation or metrological equipment now use to ensure comfortable flying. Hybrid Air Vehicles' new ships are filled with entirely inert helium into a Kevlar-reinforced semi-rigid balloon that loses less than three per cent of its gas every year. The balloon itself is aerodynamically shaped like an oversized wing, providing lift as it moves forward. Four engines add extra power, allowing it to take off and land on anything from gravel, sand, ice and water.

Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at 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.

"For decades there has been a complete lack of confidence in airships as a mode of transport but the mining industry is exactly the sort of investment you need to encourage others to follow suit," he says.

"Say you discover a gold mine in a remote corner of the Arctic, the first thing you have to do is build a road. It's an incredibly expensive process and once the mine is finished the road is useless.

"Airships change all that. Once it catches on and is shown to work, the idea will spread."

Ironically, it was the US military that first took a punt on airships and generated enough confidence in the idea to give it traction in the 21st century.

Because of secretive contractual commitments Hybrid Air Vehicles can't talk about it. But it is a matter or public record that the Bedford firm – alongside American arms giant Northrop Grumman – won a half-billion-dollar contract last year to build three surveillance blimps that will give the US military unparalleled eavesdropping abilities over battlefields.

The so-called Long-Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicles (LEMVs), which can hover at 20,000ft for 21 days, are packed with sophisticated computers and listening devices that military chiefs hope will allow them to send real-time intelligence to troops on the ground within 15 seconds.

It might sound counter-intuitive to have a giant inflatable balloon floating above a battlefield bristling with weaponry but defence tests have shown that the blimp is virtually indestructible.

The inert helium is at such a low pressure that even if the blimp is holed by bullets it would take days to seep out (though 20,000ft is well beyond the range of anything not rocket-fuelled anyway). Surface to air missiles, meanwhile, bounce off without exploding and the ship cannot be detected by radar.

One defence industry official who saw the tests conducted on a prototype said: "We shot at it with 120 half-inch armour-piercing rounds and three days later the balloon was still flying. It's a remarkable piece of kit."

The exact timing of when the balloons will be combat ready has not been released publicly but industry sources have told The Independent that they expect the first ship tobe above Afghanistan before the start of the timetabled 2012 troop withdrawals. The first blimp is already being assembled in the States and could be up and running by the end of the year. For those in the industry the hope is that the arrival on heavy-lift Zeppelins both on the battlefield and in the Arctic could pave the way for the return of luxury cruise liners in the sky.

It is a pitch that Hybrid Air Vehicles's Gordon Taylor has clearly rehearsed.

"Imagine you're with 400 of your best friends," he says with a wry smile. "You head down to Regent's Park International and board one of our vessels at 11am on a Thursday morning. There's fine dining, cocktails, stately rooms and dinner dances.

"The flight across the Atlantic takes 30 hours so there's no jet lag. The only thing you'd need to worry about it how to get over the hangover from all those cocktails."

It's hard to argue with that.

Airship milestones

* The airship began life as a symbol of modernity, with Ferdinand von Zeppelin's pioneering ships criss-crossing the skies of Europe at the turn of the century. When war broke out, airships were used for reconnaissance on the Western Front, and Zeppelin raids on British towns killed hundreds.

* The age of the airship came crashing down in 1937 when the German passenger ship Hindenburg burst in to flames in the skies above New Jersey, killing 36 people; all in front of newsreel cameras.

* The aeroplane supplanted the airship, though blimps continued to be used for surveillance, filming and advertising.

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