Airships carry us back to future

A fleet of airships racing around the world, with a possible stop in the UAE, is only the start of a Texan’s plans for the craft. He sees it as ideal for freight transport in the developing world, Daniel Bardsley writes.
Egyptians watch from the top of the Great Pyramid as the Graf Zeppelin hovers over the Pyramid of Chephren in 1931. They will be able to do so again in 2016 if the World Sky Race gets off the ground. Courtesy Library of Congress / Corbis
Egyptians watch from the top of the Great Pyramid as the Graf Zeppelin hovers over the Pyramid of Chephren in 1931. They will be able to do so again in 2016 if the World Sky Race gets off the ground. Courtesy Library of Congress / Corbis

It is nothing if not ambitious: a plan to race airships around the globe on a route that will take the vast craft over such famous historical sites as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal.

The project is the brainchild of Don Hartsell, 61, a resolutely upbeat Texan who first conceived the idea in his early 20s.

In recent years after completing his last work assignment – a project to help digitise archives for the authorities in Texas – Mr Hartsell has dedicated himself to seeing the World Sky Race get off the ground at last.

And the race, scheduled to start in September 2016, could even stop off in the Arabian Gulf region, possibly in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha or Muscat.

Mr Hartsell was recently in Abu Dhabi to promote his race and seek UAE support, speaking to staff and students at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

He describes his pet project as “crazy, outside the box but thoughtful”.

“There’s a possibility the World Sky Race will end up being based for the Gulf coast in Abu Dhabi but we’re not going to rule out Doha, Dubai or Muscat, because there’s interest there as well,” Mr Hartsell said during his visit.

“One of these cities will be our selected host site.”

If it goes ahead, the race would begin at the Greenwich Meridian in London and, over 18 races and six months, circumnavigate the globe before reaching a spectacular finale in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles in Paris.

Along the way, the airships would need about 55 airfields for maintenance and refuelling.

Organisers have so far reached agreements with 44 airfields that could be involved, and secured access to fuel for 20 airships.

Mr Hartsell hopes schools around the globe could follow the race, focusing on the geography, history, culture and environment of the countries over which the airships pass.

Each airship would have a title sponsor and possibly a national, regional, state or city affiliation.

Audacious though the World Sky Race may seem, it is just the starting point for what Mr Hartsell thinks could be a modern-day renaissance in the popularity of airships.

In the 1920s and 1930s, he says, there was “significant technological competition” between airships and aeroplanes.

Back then, aeroplanes could carry a maximum of four people, while there were airships taking to the skies capable of carrying 120.

“When airplanes could barely make it to the next destination, airships were travelling between Europe and South America,” Mr Hartsell says.

“The reason the aeroplane overtook and [became] the primary means of movement in the skies was the dependability, for being able to take off and land without ground crews.

“The disadvantage of airships was having 40-odd people waiting for an airship to move or depart as part of the landing or take-off procedure.”

And then there was the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when the giant German airship, filled with hydrogen instead of the non-flammable helium used in today’s airships, caught fire while trying to dock in the United States, killing 36 people including one member of the ground crew.

The tragedy, captured by television cameras and now immortalised on YouTube, stifled the development of passenger services and by the Second World War, only the US was still developing military airships.

Since then the aeroplane, with its greater speed and higher payload capacity, has cemented its dominance of the skies.

Yet with energy efficiency a growing concern, Mr Hartsell says the pendulum has partly swung back in favour of airships.

“The physics is that it takes 90 per cent of the energy of an aeroplane to get in the air and stay in the air, and 10 per cent to go forward,” he says.

“The airship is lighter than air. It is going to save as much as 85 per cent of the energy to move that mass forward. That translates into 85 per cent less pollution.”

In particular, Mr Hartsell considers airships valuable for carrying freight in less developed parts of the world, as the craft could reduce the need for expensive infrastructure such as road and rail networks.

They would also reduce the amount of environmental damage that could be caused by such infrastructure.

Airships, he predicts, will become the “go-to technology” for freight transport for those parts of the world not yet linked to major road, rail or air networks.

“We live in the 60 per cent [of the world] where we have roads, railroads, harbours and runways,” Mr Hartsell says. “The other 40 per cent is on footpaths.

“Forty per cent of the world is not even serviced by aircraft.

“An airship could cover that 40 per cent without building those railroads or roads.”

While they cannot match the speed of conventional aircraft, airships travelling at almost 195kph outpace sea, rail or road transport, he says.

Mr Hartsell cites technological advances as making airship transport more attractive than it was in the 1930s, when the gas cells for many airships were made from the lining of cattle intestines.

Major companies such as Lockheed Martin are looking at hybrid designs, between airships and aeroplanes, by developing craft that use the buoyancy of gas with, for example, helicopter rotor blades.

Such aircraft should be able to carry more than a typical airship while not using as much fuel as a plane.

“Today we’re able to move forward with what we know as an engineering community, a design community,” says Mr Hartsell.

We also have technology such as carbon composites, more advanced avionics and a better understanding of winds, he says.

“It was said that the golden age of airships was in the 1930s. With today’s needs and capabilities, the golden age of airships will be this century.”

Published: August 2, 2014 04:00 AM


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