An airship boom in Southern California

Photo: the Aeroscraft in a hangar in CA. Image: Worldwide Aeros, Inc.

In the Los Angeles Times, an article about an aerospace industry boom of sorts in Southern California, involving new twists on an old technology: airships. Who's buying? The military, and other government agencies, primarily for defense and surveillance purposes.

[I]n recent years, the affordability of airships as well as developments in high-definition cameras, high-powered sensors and other unmanned technologies have turned these oddball aircraft from curiosities of a bygone era to must-have items for today's military. And airships increasingly are being used for civilian purposes.

The federal government is buying blimps, zeppelins and spy balloons, and many of these new-generation hybrid "lighter than air" aircraft are taking shape across California.

"So much is going on with airships in California now," Pasternak said. "It wasn't this way 10 years ago."

Of note, the difference between airships, blimps, and zeppelins:

Although these steerable aircraft are sometimes known casually as blimps, there are differences. A blimp is shaped by the gas inside of it, whereas a zeppelin has a rigid skeleton inside. The helium-filled sky balloons, or aerostats, used over Afghanistan are neither blimps nor zeppelins. But they all fall under the term "airship."

Read the rest here. One of the companies profiled is Worldwide Aeros, makers of the Aeroscraft, a 500-foot long, 160-foot wide carrier that combines aircraft and airship qualities and can haul more than 134,000 pounds of military or commercial cargo. There's a non-embeddable video at the LA Times article, and lots more at the company's YouTube channel.


    1. The Helium shortage is based off of production infrastructure problems, not the actual supply of the gas. In fact, with new technologies, we can economically extract more and more diluted sources of the gas found in natural gas fields around the world, where there are thousands of times more gas than in the uncommonly rich but dwindling helium gas fields where it is currently extracted.

      And when the natural gas is gone, helium can be extracted from the atmosphere like the much rarer Krypton and Xenon are today. It’s constantly lost into space and replenished by radioactive decay, so the source is completely renewable.

      1. “And when the natural gas is gone, helium can be extracted from the atmosphere like the much rarer Krypton and Xenon are today.”

        It could be, but it would cost about 10,000 times as much to do that as get it via liquefaction of natural gas.  That would make helium balloons a pure luxury and more significantly be pretty problematic for medical procedures involving superconducting magnets. 

        1. “But it would cost 10,000 times as much to do that”

          Uh, no, no it wouldn’t. Right now, gaseous private market Helium which is liquefied from natural gas costs about $6.00 per cubic meter. Atmospherically-distilled Krypton is 5 times rarer than Helium in the atmosphere, and it costs about $40-$65 per cubic meter. Xenon gas is 50 times rarer than Helium, and it costs roughly $800 per cubic meter. Of course, demand affects these prices a little, but with proper recycling and conservation methods Helium should remain quite cheap.

          As for the effect on cargo airships, let’s look at the Airlander 50 airship and the Airbus A400M cargo plane, both of which are modern cargo aircraft of similar capacity(50 and 30-40 tons, respectively.) Because airships lose only about 3% of their Helium volume per annum, the initial fill-up during construction is the biggest Helium drain in its lifetime. The Airlander 50 needs 75,000 cubic meters. If you include that with the $45 million cost of the airship, it makes it cost $45,450,000 to fill up with natural gas helium. If Helium were distilled from the atmosphere, it would likely cost a little over $46 mil, barring a drastic change in demand. If you filled it with extremely rare Xenon gas, it would cost about $105,000,000. The cost of the A400M? Depending on the options, around $200,000,000.

          So yes, the Helium switchover would probably be negligible.

          1.  “Xenon gas is 50 times rarer than Helium, and it costs roughly $800 per cubic meter”

            Say again?  I’m seeing prices in the range of $10-$14 per liter for Xenon, which means a cubic meter’s a *lot* more than $800. 

          2. I’m sorry, Phanatic, you’re quite right. I made a unit conversion error from liters to cubic meters. Xenon is $10 per liter(I was using an older source that said $8), Krypton is $1 per liter. Xenon is 10 times rarer than Krypton and 10 times as expensive, so we can safely assume it’s proportional, demand notwithstanding. Which would make atmospherically-distilled Helium about $.20 per liter, or $200 per cubic feet. Which gives us $15 million to fill up an Airlander 50. Not insignificant, to be sure, but still small compared to the then-$140,000,000+ cost advantage over the cargo plane which happens to lift 10-20 tons LESS than the Airlander 50.

    2.  While it’s true that some of the airships mentioned have been filled with helium, it needn’t be so for unmanned ships. Hydrogen should work just fine as long as there aren’t people riding.
      Frankly I think hydrogen would be OK these days for manned airships as well, particularly if we can refrain from painting the outside of the craft with thermite…
      People will probably continue to prefer cramming themselves into pressurized aluminum tubes welded to aerofoil-shaped bombs, though.

  1. “Hey kids, look at the blimp in the sky! It’s taking pictures of us right now!”

    “That’s so cool, Dad”

    1. “Yes, I’d like to send this letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by aeromail. Am I too late for the 4:30 autogyro?”

  2. Lighter than air travel used to be a big deal.  For example at one time there was luxury passenger service from Berlin To Rio by Zeppelin.  The Hindenberg disaster pretty much put paid to an industry that had been losing ground to more efficient airplanes.  But think of it: like a cruise, only far above the ocean.  It’s fascinating.

    1.  The Hindenburg had an aluminum piano in the lounge, real close to the windows that the passengers could open to the breeze. Picture this: Cruising along above a sea of puffy white cumulus clouds, lit by the Full Moon, watching the sea glimmering in the moonlight far below you, while someone is playing a little Brahms. Pure Magic.

        1. I don’t know about aluminum, but steel ones sound okay. There used to be a piano company in Salt Lake City that made steel-framed pianos, because wood frames dry out and snap in the desert, and they sounded fine.

          1. The majority of mass in a piano is the cast iron plate. 
            I am a piano technician, and one of my clients has a piano with  an aluminium plate, made during the war years when iron was illegal to use in non-war effort manufacturing, but aluminium was allowed, presumably when they needed more tanks than airplanes. The piano sounds fine, but the tuning is rather unstable because the aluminum continues to slowly bend over time under the tension.

            The wooden beams making the frame surrounding the plate are important, but I could see them being replaced with steel with no significant loss in sound quality. However,  two parts of the piano that are far more important are also make of wood, the soundboard and pinblock. I have heard of carbon fiber soundboards, but a piano with a steel soundboard would sound just awful. Or if not awful, not like a piano. Think “resonator guitar”

            EDIT: I found a piano made with a metal soundboard/bridge, with a 1967 recording.

        2. According to accounts, the Blüthner piano sounded remarkably full-bodied for something so light. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    2. There must be a fuel cost threshold where this becomes efficient for freight and even passenger movement. Unless crazy weather systems make it too hazardous? Reminds me of Paolo Bacigalupi stories.

  3. I was just talking about airships yesterday, prompted by reading a random book in a thrift shop that was claiming the Hindenberg was blown up by US/UK agents to discredit the nazis. Huh, never heard that one before.

    What really got me was how incredibly opulent and wonderful they sounded. I’m the sort who still wishes you could take passenger boats around the world, but this would be a happy medium. I assume the trip would take a few days, in some luxurious flying galley. It just sounds so wonderful, what an experience spending days suspended in a large space where you could walk around, ballroom dance, play croquet, what have you.

    And then, what a tragedy, that they are rebuilding these things…to spy on people and direct bombers. Sad Panda :'(

    Ah well, I bet tickets on a modern Zeppelin would probably be in the five figure range, just a guess. Still, I wonder…

    BTW, wouldn’t these as military vessels be quite vulnerable to surface to air missiles? I don’t care how thick the kevlar mesh is, I can’t imagine these couldn’t be punctured by someone determined enough…

      1. They’re still larger than any airplane ever built, though. The Airbus A380 double-decker widebody has about 5,000 square feet of deck space, and the Hindenburg-class had more than that on the A deck alone.

    1. BTW, wouldn’t these as military vessels be quite vulnerable to surface to air missiles? I don’t care how thick the kevlar mesh is, I can’t imagine these couldn’t be punctured by someone determined enough…

      Well sure. But they could be used for border security or observation of areas already cleared of anti-aircraft threats, for example. World military forces already use a mix of vehicles including several that are more vulnerable to attack than fighting equipment (for example, relatively unarmed, slow-moving transport aircraft). It’s all about how it’s used. 

    2. They actually are much less vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles than any other aircraft. The LEMV, for example, has incredible redundancy, flies well beyond their range, can rely on aerodynamic lift, and carries the extremely low-pressure gas in 19 separate cells. More than anything, though, they’re safe because missiles can’t detonate against fabric, and even if they were somehow timed to explode inside, the helium suffocates explosions, rendering it a dud.

      They have done tests on this. It’s quite remarkable; the more deadly a system is to other aircraft, the less it seems to affect airships. The best way to shoot one down remains simply shooting it thousands of times and waiting for it to slowly sink or crashing another aircraft into it.

      1. So what you need is a wide-cone shrapnel warhead with a proximity detonator. Just like shooting it thousands of times, only within a fraction of a second. They wouldn’t even need to design a new warhead — these are already in use as antipersonnel weapons. (and, according to wiki, anti-ballistic missile warheads)

        1. Exactly. But shooting it would actually probably be more effective, because the airship is so large. The problem is that the warhead would spew a lot of flak into it, but only damage one or maybe two neighboring gas cells at a time. At least if you shot at it, you could puncture many of the gas cells at once, and it’s a darn sight easier to buy and hide from the LEMV(if it were ever to be flying low enough to be hit by small arms fire, that is).

          Then there’s the other problem- the proximity sensor. Usually they’re designated from the ground via radar or altimeters, or the warhead contains lasers or radar sensors itself. The fabric of the airship is an extremely poor radar target, making it seem amorphous and distorted. The optical sensor works by reflecting the laser beam, which is also distorted by the fabric. A lot of proximity sensors would likely fail.

          And then there’s the problem of the launch system- the LEMV would spot it from miles off. And it flies well beyond the range of shoulder-fired missiles. Not to mention the system capable of both targeting the LEMV and actually inflicting enough damage to it would be ridiculously expensive and difficult to obtain if you aren’t a first-world nation, and if you did have one, you certainly wouldn’t be wasting dozens of multi-million-dollar missiles on something that costs less than a Global Hawk drone. You’d be after the C-5 Galaxies and fancy fighter jets, more bang for your buck.

          So yes. The LEMV can be taken down, but it is inordinately difficult to do so and largely futile.

          1. I take your point on the cost-benefit balance. So if we were a hypothetical nation state with a limited budget, how would we go about taking out airships?

            The two main technical issues I see are precise targetting and then cheap delivery of penetrators to the target. I’m also wondering whether the shrapnel (or an LRD-type warhead) wouldn’t go through multiple cells rather than stop at just one.

            As far as the LEMV spotting the incoming projectile, so what? A 9M96 S-A missile has a top speed of mach 5. At its maximum range of 40km, you’re looking at 30-45 seconds time to target (guesstimating the acceleration time). Evasive manoeuvres are a non-starter for something that’s 100m long and at top speed would only shift 1800m in those 45 seconds.
            (using the Northorp Grumman design projections)

            Countermeasures are a different issue, though. But as I have no bright ideas for how the missile would be targeting the airship in the first place, I can’t make any guesses on how effective countermeasure would be in this scenario :)

          2. Invictus, if I were a hypothetical nation-state looking to destroy a LEMV, I wouldn’t bother with missiles at all. The targeting, visibility, expense and cost-benefit problems would sink that approach.

            To take down a LEMV, or any airship really, you need to have several factors. First is stealth. Your attack is meaningless if the LEMV sees you coming(not difficult for something that can see through walls using several different methods and hear everything), and then calls its buddies to destroy the threat, or destroys you itself, if it’s carrying the attack module.

            Second is large-scale penetration. Because the hull, gondolas, and even the self-sealing explosion-proof foam fuel tanks are made of fabric, all swaddled in millions of cubic feet of smothering helium, things that detonate are out. Kamikaze is the #1 best option for lethality, but that isn’t stealthy and most small planes and helicopters can’t hope to reach its operating altitude. And you’d better hope it doesn’t have the attack module. So the best choice remains bullets, in massive quantities.

            I would try to combine bullets and kamikaze: find out where it’s going to be, set up a hidden anti-aircraft battery on the ground as best as possible when it’s gone, something post-ww2 era to be able to hit the operating altitude, and simply wait until the LEMV comes along and ambush it. The LEMV would flee and call backup, or destroy the battery itself, and fly back to base, on aerodynamics if the Helium loss is great enough. If it starts to sink even then, it would perform a ballast drop to buy time and start to go lower where the helium has more lift and aerodynamics have more atmosphere to work on. At that point, it would be vulnerable to a suicide strike by a plane before it reaches the base.

        2. I commented on your proposal below, but I had to reply to my own comment because disqus doesn’t let you comment on long tangents. Would you like to start a new comment?

  4. I live next to Lakehurst, and saw the LEMV test flight a few weeks ago, very cool to see the thing cruising silently along the coast. So, not just in Cali, this is going on!

      1. So called because at closing time the technicians hang up the airships on wall-mounted hooks.

        Neater that way, you see.

  5. Picture this:  48 hours hanging from a balloon over the north atlantic being buffeted by thunderstorms without weather radar, with pilots navigating by dropping flares out of the cockpit and observing how the wind blew them.  Gotta say I am very appreciative of the progress we’ve made on long distance travel.

  6. Am I alone in wishing that Igor Pasternak would say “Kirov Reporting!” in his extremely thick Ukranian accent?

  7. These must be MUCH better for greenhouse gasses than an airplane.  I REALLY want to take one from London to San Francisco, when I go home for the holidays. I wouldn’t mind the longer time if the carbon footprint was less.

    1. Airships are extremely efficient. They produce very little or no carbon footprint. Hybrid Air Vehicle’s LEMV uses 1/10 as much fuel as comparable aircraft, and Solar Ship of Canada has built three manned prototype airships that can run entirely on solar power, and fly entirely on aerodynamics like an airplane.

  8. It’s curious how often I am reminded of him on BB lately, but Santos-Dumont would be pleased to hear such aircraft are regaining some of their lost appeal.

    Perhaps in the near future, his vision of a “personal airship” for private ownership akin to that of car ownership will be possible. Until then, he alone in history has known the joys of piloting your own private airship down to one’s favorite restaurant, handing over the lead ropes to the valets, enjoying a fine meal, and then casually returning aloft and sailing home, or perhaps even onward to some other fancied destination.

    1. Poor Cargolifter. They really bit off way more than they could chew with the CL-160. not to mention their design was decidedly old-fashioned(it was not a hybrid airship) and had a shamefully low payload for its nearly 900-foot size… three times the volume of the Hindenburg(which had 100 tons of useful lift), and yet had a 160 ton payload, when ninety-year-old technology could make it 300 tons.

      By contrast a 600-foot “Airlander 200” hybrid catamaran airship can lift 200 tons, and a 500-foot Aeroscraft ML 868 can lift 66 tons. 160 tons for something so massive is just not enough.

  9. Back when I really wanted the airship to return, it became obvious to me that there just isn’t enough cheap helium in the world for very many of these beasts.

    As ‘peak helium’ production finally passes, the only way to pursue this dream is going to be finding safe ways to use hydrogen for lift or invent some new lifting volume, perhaps exotic material with partial vacuum.

    I don’t think hydrogen is as crazy as it sounds. When airplanes fail it’s just as spectacular as the Hindenburg, the fuel is even more dangerous.  It’s just a matter of getting over the Hindenburg imagery. If we can overcome Love Canal, Chernobyl, Thalidomide,  and the Vietnam footage, one old newsreel shouldn’t be that hard to beat.

  10. Airships lofted for long-term surveillance probably won’t be placed at altitudes low enough for man-portable missiles to reach. An AA missile site close enough to be a threat would undoubtedly be attacked and destroyed before an airship was deployed in the area. The same goes for unfriendly aircraft.

    The biggest threats to airships are storms, high winds, leaks, and budget cuts.

  11. “Although these steerable aircraft are sometimes known casually as blimps, there are differences. A blimp is shaped by the gas inside of it, whereas a zeppelin has a rigid skeleton inside. The helium-filled sky balloons, or aerostats, used over Afghanistan are neither blimps nor zeppelins. But they all fall under the term “airship.””

    Oh the nomenclature!

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