UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles resumed test flights of its Airlander 10 hybrid airship this week, after a nine-month hiatus. The program suffered a setback last year after the test aircraft took a nosedive while attempting to land. Although nobody was hurt during the crash, and much of the ship remained intact, the test unit sustained structural damage to the cockpit and landing gear, and required repairs and further modifications which prevented it from flying again until this month.
On Wednesday, the Airlander successfully completed a 2.5-hour flight from its base at Cardington field. This time around, regulatory restrictions prevented the Airlander from flying above an altitude of 1,300 meters, or at a distance greater than 15 miles away from its Cardington launch site—far from its full potential. Hybrid Air Vehicles claims the Airlander 10 can reach altitudes of 6,100 meters.
The appeal of Hybrid Airships is potentially huge. They require little fixed ground infrastructure or runways, flight crews are optional, and they burn less fuel than airplanes. How they navigate through variable weather conditions at low altitudes however, remains to be seen.
By 2021, Hybrid Air Vehicles expects to produce ten units annually of the US$32 million, 10-tonne-payload Airlander 10. The company is also developing a larger variant, the Airlander 50, with a planned payload of up to 60 tonnes. As might be expected, cruise speeds are not particularly high – 80 nautical miles per hour for the Airlander 10, and 105 for the Airlander 50 – but given that both models will be able to stay aloft for several days, and longer if unmanned, they will have considerable range (up to 2,000 nm for the Airlander 50).
If the Airlander 10 can demonstrate its airworthiness, it will go head-to-head with Lockheed Martin’s tri-lobe Hybrid Airship. Although Lockheed has not yet built a commercial version, it has already displayed its airship technologies with a prototype demonstrator developed by its Skunk Works team that it calls the P-791. Lockheed says it has already completed all of the FAA certification planning steps required to certify a new class of aircraft, and is now moving forward with construction of a commercial test unit that will be used to complete the FAA type certification process. Last year, in a vote of confidence for hybrid airships, UK-based Straightline Aviation signed a US$480 million LOI to purchase twelve airships from Lockheed.
And now, proof that Wednesday’s test flight was a success. Here’s a video of the Airlander 10’s take-off and landing on 10 May:
Next, another of Lockheed’s P791 hybrid airship prototype taking-off and landing: