Airships Making a Comeback

I used to be posted near the English town of Bedford, and driving around the local area I’d often pass what used to be RAF Cardington. Unlike most RAF bases, Cardington didn’t have runways or a control tower, because no fixed wing aircraft were ever based there. What it had instead was two giant sheds. Each one is close to 300 feet wide, over 250 feet high and more than 800 feet long. They’re enormous, and now almost unique. In the 1920s RAF Cardington was the Royal Airship Works, and those two massive buildings are among the world’s last airship sheds.

Britain stopped making airships in late 1930, after the R101 – which had been built in Cardington’s No. 1 Shed – crashed in France on October 4th. Forty-eight people died as the 777-foot craft’s hydrogen lifting gas exploded into a huge fireball after an engine failure. After that, Britain decided airships were just too dangerous and the government abandoned them. Cardington’s huge sheds were used as military warehouses; then, in 1936, the RAF started making barrage balloons there. After WWII, the Parachute Regiment took over part of the site as a school, storing the balloons used for jump training in the sheds. The RAF also produced and stored various gases at Cardington, which had gas-handling facilities from its airship days. Finally, it closed in 2000 – after another round of defense cuts.

The sheds were still there though, and in 2007 a company called Hybrid Air Vehicles took them over. After a 77-year break, airship construction restarted at Cardington. This time the aim was to develop an airship for the US Army’s Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle project. HAV won the contract in 2009 and built the HAV 304 ship for trials. This used twin side by side hulls containing a total of 1.3 million cubic feet of helium gas, which gives less lift than hydrogen but doesn’t burn or explode. It could fly at 92mph or cruise for five days at 20mph, and was powerful enough to lift seven tons of surveillance gear or cargo.

airlander-10Unfortunately, the US Army, after spending $517 million on the LEMV and an 18-month testing program, changed its mind and cancelled the project. When they tried to sell the now-unwanted airship, nobody was interested except its builders, HAV, who made a take it or leave it offer of $301,000. In September 2013, the Pentagon agreed to the sale, and HAV immediately took the ship back to Cardington and began rebuilding it as a general-purpose airship.

The renamed Airlander 10 made its first flight on August 17th, 2016; on August 24th it had a minor crash on its second flight. HAV are repairing it, though, and also working on plans for the much larger Airlander 50. If they get that one off the ground, it will be able to lift 50 tons of payload, or enough fuel and supplies to stay airborne for weeks.

Modern airships like this have a range of military uses. Surveillance is one; they can’t survive against any kind of air defense or combat aircraft, but for counter-insurgency operations they have a lot of potential. Anyone who’s served in Afghanistan is probably familiar with the Persistent Threat Detection System – the unmanned, tethered surveillance blimps above Kabul and Kandahar. Unlike standard reconnaissance platforms, these give permanent, all-weather surveillance capability. An airship replicates that capability, but with a lot more flexibility and the option of carrying strike weapons.

Cargo airships often have a lot of potential. They don’t need a runway, but have longer range and potentially higher cargo capacity than a helicopter. An Airlander 50 could resupply multiple FOBs in a single trip, hovering above small arms range and lowering pallets with a winch. Even if it did take some rounds, it’s pretty damage resistant. Bullet holes in the top of an airship release gas too slowly to stop it getting back to base; holes in the bottom have no effect at all.

There’s little chance that passenger airships and Zeppelin bombers will ever make a comeback unless one of the more demented post-apocalyptic scenarios comes true, but they do have some interesting potential uses. With any luck, all that money spent on the LEMV won’t be completely wasted.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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