Prototype “Hybrid Air Vehicle” (HAV) – the “Airlander” – may have its first flight this year

The world’s longest aircraft has been unveiled.  It is an experimental hybrid, which looks like a giant (helium filled) airship – which has a pod slung underneath, two small engine rotors and small wings. It is the shape of two rugby-ball shapes linked in the middle with a joining section. It uses little fuel and its advocates say it is “70% greener than a cargo plane.” If the giant models can be made to work, they may be able to carry up to 50 tonnes payload. It can land on a small space, or on water, and so is being promoted as possibly helpful to land aid and equipment to remote disaster areas with no long runways. The machines could also be used for long term surveillance as they can stay aloft for days or weeks, and be remotely operated. The length of the prototype is 302ft (92m) which is some 60ft longer than the Airbus A380 or the massive cargo-carrying Antonov An-225. The company developing it has now received £2.5m of UK government funding for development “of quieter, more energy efficient and environmentally friendly planes.”  Business Secretary Vince Cable hopes this will be an “innovative low carbon aircraft which can keep us at the cutting edge of new technology …… to lead the world in its field.”  They may be able to “fly over the Amazon at 20ft, over some of the world’s greatest cities and stream the whole thing on the internet.”  However, supplies of helium are limited, and non-renewable.  Some experts suggest supplies of helium could be depleted by the middle of the century. See below.


World’s longest aircraft is unveiled in UK

Richard WestcottBy Richard WestcottBBC transport correspondent

28 February 2014 (BBC)

How the Airlander was built

Related BBCStories

The world’s longest aircraft has just been unveiled in Britain’s biggest aircraft hangar.

At first, you might mistake it for a giant airship – gas-filled balloon on top, pod slung underneath.

But the unique, aerodynamic shape of the balloon – it looks as if a series of cigars have been sewn together – means it can also generate lift just like an aeroplane wing.

That is key, because it enables the designers to make the machine heavier than air, which cuts the need to have dozens of crew hanging on to ropes holding it down every time you land.

In fact, you can land it via remote control with no-one on board at all if you like. And on water if needs be.

Let me put it into perspective for you.

This thing is two-and-a-half times longer than the distance covered by the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

With a length of 302ft (92m) the new airship is about 60ft longer than the biggest airliners, the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8.

It is also almost 30ft longer than the massive cargo-carrying Antonov An-225, which until now was the longest aircraft ever built.

The hybrid airship is “a game changer”, says Bruce Dickinson

Government funding

It costs about $100m (£60m) and the designers are planning an even bigger version that will eventually be able to carry 50 tonnes at a time.

The company developing it has now received £2.5m of government funding to develop the technology and engineering for the project.

“We are jointly funding £2bn of research and development into the next generation of quieter, more energy efficient and environmentally friendly planes,” says Business Secretary Vince Cable.

“That includes backing projects like Hybrid Air Vehicles’ innovative low carbon aircraft which can keep us at the cutting edge of new technology.

“Here is a British SME that has the potential to lead the world in its field.”

Cardington airship hangarsCardington’s hangars were built for Britain’s early 20th Century airships

‘We’ll fly over the Amazon’

All of which will be welcome news to one of the project’s high-profile investors, Bruce Dickinson.

He is one of those people who can’t stop achieving stuff.

As if being the lead singer of one of the world’s most successful and enduring rock bands, Iron Maiden, was not enough, he is also an airline pilot, businessman, and is investing in this project.

“It’s a game changer, in terms of things we can have in the air and things we can do,” he says.

“The airship has always been with us, it’s just been waiting for the technology to catch up.”

He wants to sell them and he’ll be very good at it. As we chat in the hangar, he goes through its credentials.

It is 70% greener than a cargo plane, he says. It doesn’t need a runway, just two crew. And it can plonk 50 tonnes anywhere in the world you like, which is 50 times more than a helicopter.

He wants to drum up publicity with the kind of trip Richard Branson would dream up. A non-stop flight around the world – twice.

“It seizes my imagination. I want to get in this thing and fly it pole to pole,” he says.

“We’ll fly over the Amazon at 20ft, over some of the world’s greatest cities and stream the whole thing on the internet.”

The airship in its hangar at CardingtonA first British flight is scheduled for later this year

Historic hangars

It is not surprising that we had to go to Britain’s biggest aircraft hangar to see the world’s longest aircraft.

For the best view, we had to climb the world’s scariest staircase too (safe of course, but not one for the faint-hearted).

Cardington shed number one, in Bedfordshire, is nearly as impressive as the flying machine inside it.

Built 100 years ago, it dominates the skyline around here (along with its neighbour Cardington number two shed) and it is bristling with history. This is where they built the ill-fated airship, R101, back in the 1920s.

That behemoth was twice as long as the hybrid air vehicle, had a beautiful dining room and lounge on board, and was meant to herald the future of flight, right up until the moment it was devoured by fire after a crash in France in 1930.

Technology has come a long way since then. The Hybrid Air Vehicle (HAV) is full of inert helium, not explosive hydrogen.

The HAV is back in the UK after the US Army ran out of money to develop the project.

An illustration of HAV's Airlander airship The advantage of modern airships is they can deliver supplies to remote areas, say supporters

Flight plans

The US military bought it a few years ago and got this aircraft flying as a surveillance machine – it can stay in the same spot for 21 days at a time, and can fly with a lot of bullet holes in it too.

When the US defence budget was slashed, the British developers bought it back, and now they are planning the first UK flight later this year.

They are hoping to sell it to oil and mining companies to deliver heavy equipment to remote corners of the world. But they are also keen to sell its humanitarian possibilities.

The HAV, which has been named Airlander, could ferry tonnes of supplies to and from any disaster zone, day in and day out.

All you would need is a crew of two and a patch of ground, or water on which to land.





23 March 2013 (BBC)

Cranfield airship firm bids to buy back US Army craft

Hybrid Air Vehicles
The vehicle acquired by the US Army is 10 storeys high, 180ft (55m) wide and 400ft (122m) long

A Bedfordshire company says it is trying to buy back one of its airships left redundant at an US Army base.

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) of Cranfield designed and built the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for the US Army for a reported $300m (£197m).

It first flew in the US in August 2012 but, after Federal budgets were cut, is now due to be dismantled.

HAV wants to buy it back but the US Army has yet to make a decision.

The 10-storey high LEMV is 180ft (55m) wide and 400ft (122m) long.

It is designed to be used for surveillance but can also carry cargo and people.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

If they decide to destroy the vehicle, there’s not much to learn from that”

Hardy GieslerHybrid Air Vehicles

‘Substantial cuts’

It is now sitting unused in a US Army hangar after US Federal budgets were reduced on 1 March.

“The number of cuts [the US Army] have to make to existing operations, as well as projects for future equipment, is substantial and this is one of the casualties,” said Hardy Giesler of HAV.

He said HAV wanted to buy back the aircraft at “a cost to be negotiated”.

It hopes to complete the flight test programme and carry out trials to show the vehicle’s commercial capabilities, while allowing the army continued access to technology and flight test data.

“Anything we learn we are willing to share at no cost to them,” he said.

Mr Giesler said this solution would “best benefit” the army as it would avoid the cost of dismantling and storing the craft.

“And if they decide to destroy the vehicle, there’s not much to learn from that,” he said.

“The option we are putting forward helps us and many other companies, military as well as civilian, who have expressed an interest in using this vehicle to carry out tests.”

Mr Giesler said that having a vehicle to show to potential clients was likely to increase the speed of orders and the company’s expansion.

A US Army spokesman said: “The matter is under review.”




A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage

4.1.2013  (Independent)

It’s used in everything from kids parties to medicine – but now supplies are running so low scientists want to ration it. Steve Connor reports on the great helium shortage

It is the lighter-than-air gas that makes a party balloon float up to the ceiling, but a shortage of the element is threatening to disrupt critical research projects.

In 1996 the US government decided to start selling off its national helium reserve at rock-bottom prices, leading to a glut of cheap helium on the world market. Scientists believe this explains why oil companies have not bothered to collect much of the helium released to the air during the mining of natural gas. With the entire US strategic reserve expected to be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price, several multimillion-pound projects in the UK have had to be put on hold.

The supply of helium, an inert element with the lowest boiling point of any known substance, has now become so erratic that scientists are calling for a ban on all but the most essential uses – which could mean no more helium-filled party balloons.

“The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue. I can imagine that in 50 years’ time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons,’” said Peter Wothers of Cambridge University, who gave the 2012 Royal Institution Christmas lectures.

“There is a finite supply of this lighter-than-air gas on Earth so if we keep using it for non-essential things like party balloons, where we’re just letting it float off into space, we could be in for some serious problems in around 30 to 50 years’ time,” Dr Wothers said.

The shortage has mainly affected research centres studying the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners, which are similar to the MRI machines used in hospitals but need to be topped up regularly with liquid helium (helium super-cooled to minus 269C, just four degrees above the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero).

Last year, MEG scanners at the universities of Glasgow, London, Oxford and Cambridge were all affected by shortages of helium. “We increasingly face regular periods of forced shut-down of our multimillion-pound facility because of these difficulties, and we are told the problem will only get worse,” said Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford’s Centre for Human Brain Activity.

“It is difficult to imagine an adequate market incentive to collect helium during natural gas extraction while the US government is selling off its entire stockpile at bargain prices,” Dr Stokes said.

“Cheap helium also drives misuse. A staggering 8 per cent of the world’s helium supply is currently used for filling party balloons,” he said.

Even though helium is the second most common element on Earth, only a finite amount is available for use and this store is non-renewable. Some experts suggest supplies could be depleted by the middle of the century.

Liquid helium is critical for the cooling of infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. It is also a vital ingredient of the space industry: Nasa uses the inert gas to purge potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

Professor Ray Dolan of University College London leads the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, which had stop taking bookings for its scanner in 2012 because of helium shortages. “We have now had to invest in expensive helium-capture technology to recover some of what is burnt off,” he said, “and this decision was driven by a need to insulate ourselves against uncertainty over supply and cost.”

Helium is also critical for the massive magnets used by the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva. Serge Claudet, who leads the LHC’s work on cryogenics (the branch of physics dealing with the production and effects of very low temperatures), said Cern’s vast size has helped to insulate it against the recent vagaries of the helium market. Unlike most smaller scientific centres Cern can afford to use two or three helium suppliers, helping to keep its costs down.

“It’s like any industry: you have to be protected against fluctuations in the cost of a raw material, and for us helium is a strategically important raw material because without it we would not be able to function,” Dr Claudet said.

Light work: Uses of helium


As helium is lighter than air it can be used to inflate airships, blimps and balloons, providing lift. Although hydrogen is cheaper and more buoyant, helium is preferred as it is non-flammable.


Helium is used to cool the magnets used to make semiconductors for mobile phones, and fibre-optic cables are made in a helium atmosphere to stop bubbles getting trapped.


Helium, like hydrogen, is lighter than air but unlike hydrogen it is inert, so there is little risk of an explosion. This makes the gas perfect for inflating balloons, whether for weather devices or for party poppers.

Deep-sea diving

Divers and others working under pressure use mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to breathe under water, avoiding the problems caused by breathing ordinary air under high pressure, which include disorientation.

Medical scanners

Helium’s low boiling point makes it useful for cooling metals needed for superconductivity, such as the superconducting magnets used in medical MEG scanners and specialist brain-scanning equipment.

Space shuttles

Rocket fuel consists of highly explosive liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Helium is used to clean the fuel tanks when the craft is grounded because the gas is inert and therefore safe.


The Large Hadron Collider uses helium to keep its equipment super-cooled. Once a particle accelerator is filled with helium it needs to be constantly topped up.