Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A new age of Airships?

The Flying Luxury Hotel
Tomorrow's cruise ship will sail through the air, not the water

Fascinating article on a new breed of Airships being developed by a California based company, Worldwide Aeros Limited. The ship on the left is called the Aeroscraft, and it may well revolutionize the passenger and freight moving business.

At a max speed of 174 mph, its not likely to overtake the 757 as the quickest way of getting somewhere. But while the airline industry is cramming more and more passengers into smaller spaces to maximize fuel efficiency and revenue, the Aersocraft will have the luxury of space. At 647 ft long, by 244 ft wide, each deck of the Aeroscraft will have more than 150000 sq ft of space. Yes, you read that right, each of the multiple decks is 150000 sq ft in size.

The analogy used in the Popular Science article linked above is a flying cruise ship, and that seems to be the best analogy. The vast inside would allow plenty of space for large staterooms, restaurants, bars, and other entertainment. Tennis courts and other fitness facilities can easily be incorporated, to give a luxury liner approach to air travel.

While the image of the Hindenburg crashing to earth in a giant fireball is one that has been seared into our minds through the repetition of newsreel footage, it represents the only major accident by an airship during regular passenger operations. Compared to the cruise ship industry, or heavier than air flight industry, airships have a pretty decent safety record, albeit one with limited history to work from.

I know I, for one, would be in line for tickets on the maiden voyage of such a craft. There are certainly risks in any new kind of vehicle, and specific issues surrounding the flammability of hydrogen are issues that never really go away. But built with safety in mind, is an airship any less safe than attempting to float 10's of thousands of tons of metal, filled with thousands of partying people, on water?

Its interesting to look at two major disasters of the first half of the 20th century, and their impact on the industries they happened in. In 1912, the Titanic, the world's largest luxury cruise ship of the day, sunk killing many of the passengers on board. The supposedly unsinkable Titanic was brought down by one of the most common dangers of the waters it sailed in ... an iceberg. It sank and its passengers died due, in part, to design flaws that allowed the entire boat to fill with water, and that left far too few life boats to accommodate passengers.

Some 25 years later, in 1937, the Hindenburg exploded into a massive fire ball as it was coming in for a landing at Lakehusrt New Jersey after a successful Trans-Atlantic crossing. The Hindenburg was brought down by an especially flammable outer skin, as well as the intrinsic problems of using a highly flammable gas as the basis for lift. While the human toll for the Hindenburg was far less than the Titanic, the images were recorded on film for all to see, and they are still seared into our consciousness some 70 years later.

But what I find interesting is that while the explosion of the Hindenburg, and the death of its passengers and crew, essentially killed the airship industry in its tracks, the Titanic disaster, with its much higher human toll, was merely a blip in the cruise ship industry. Today, ships far larger and more luxurious than the Titanic routinely sail the Atlantic, Pacific, Mediterranean and Caribbean, but the closest we ever see to an airship is the Goodyear Blimp advertising something over the football stadium. Why did one disaster kill an industry, while another, far worse tragedy was barely a blip in another industry? Why did the Titanic incident serve to galvanize ship builders into safety techniques and modified designs, while the Hinderburg disaster served to scare people away from the industry in droves?

All in all, I think these ships are a GREAT idea. I even see smaller versions becoming big in shorter travel situations, such as cross-city shuttles and such for the emerging mega-urban areas like the Atlantic Seaboard, or the Tokyo Urban area. The lack of take off and landing space makes such vehicles ideal for urban settings, IMO, and I think they'd provide a fascinating and very green alternative to ground based public transit systems.

Who knows, perhaps its a pipe dream, going no where. Certainly, Popular Science has no shortage of old stories that didn't pan out as anticipated. But by the same token, no one has predicted with greater accuracy what the technology of tomorrow would look like, and I'm willing to see this one through. And if all it ends of being is dreams of a nation of people replacing their fast-paced travel with a leisurely float through the sky, then so be it ... Its a nice dream, IMO.


At 5:59 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helium, lift is the way to go in future Airship. The number of people that have been killed in airplanes in my 75 years on this planet bare witness to these facts.
Airships and the Trains Transportation Industry have been the whipping Boy long enough. With the Technolgy of today in Airships and Trains, "Now is the Hour".

At 7:46 p.m., Anonymous said...

I agree, I don't think any modern
airship designer would consider Hydrogen as a sensible choice, knowing what we know!

Helium, while not as efficient at lifting than Hydrogen, is fire-retardent and not as rare as it was back in the Hindenburgs day.
It's now made synthetically mainly as a by-product from Natural Gas mining and refinement.

I know first hand though from my business building R/C Airships for camera-work and advertising, that It ain't cheap!
I wonder whether an airship company with blimps the size of a cruise liner or Airbus would actually 'float' financially, or go down like the proverbial Lead Balloon!?
(All bad puns intended!)

At 11:57 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

My argument in favor of airship travel follows along the same example as the Titanic one listed in the article. Even though a number of crew and passengers aboard the Hindenburg died, there were survivors, and yet, airplanes crash, killing everyone on board and people continue to climb right back on and fly again. I keep hoping at some point in my lifetime, I’ll be able to see these gentle giants roam the skies once again.


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