Bringing zeppelins down to Earth

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

In Bringing zeppelins down to Earth, Michael R. of Witigonen holds a Q&A session with airship engineer Ron Hochstetler, who makes the following points:

  • Weather has always been a huge operational challenge for airships, which can’t simply fly above bad weather, the way heavier-than-air airplanes can; they have to fly around it.

    Traditionally, the airship pilot and flight crew had to study weather maps and carefully plot out their best-guess route for avoiding head winds. Now, computers can plot intricate weather-optimized routes that take into account both unwanted head winds and helpful tail winds.

  • Non-rigid airship designs — blimps — are cheaper and easier to build than rigid designs — zeppelins — but they have a size limit based on the strength of the envelope fabric. With stronger fabrics, we can now build non-rigid airships as big as the old rigid airships from back in the day.
  • Fully buoyant airships, as they slow down to land, behave more and more like soap bubbles, at the mercy of the wind. One way to side-step this problem is to make the ship heavier. A “hybrid” airship obtains just 80 percent of its lift from helium and the remainder from dynamic lift, like an airplane.
  • Airships, because they travel so slowly compared to jets, can have enormous payload volumes. In most transport aircraft you run out of payload volume long before you ever reach the payload weight limit of the aircraft.
  • Airships require less infrastructure than jets, trains, etc. — they don’t require a massive modern airport at each end — which makes them (a) flexible and (b) ideal for the less-developed world.

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