The British-made Airlander is a hybrid airship that’s economical, eco-friendly and capable of carrying 50 tonnes of cargo. We visit Hybrid Air Vehicles to see how their lead Zeppelin is fuelling growth.

They say small is beautiful but the nearly 100-year-old sheds at Cardington Airfield are enough to leave you in awe. Big can be better.

Cardington is where airships were born in Britain. Short Brothers, later nationalised as the Royal Airship Works, set to work from 1915 to 1930 on one of the most white-heat technologies of the times. But the crashes of the R101 in 1930 and the Hindenburg in 1937 saw that these beasts, and the hangars that contained them, never lived up to the initial honeyed promise. A century later, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is back where it all began; on a bucolic field in Bedfordshire, re-inventing lighter-than-air flying machines for a new era.

Practical, green, air transport

CEO Stephen McGlennan dons a hard hat and fluorescent jacket and shows me round the site where old dreams of flight look very, very new.

“There is more demand for air transportation now than there has ever been. At the same time there is a concern for the environment and so Airlander, as a practical and green flight technology, fits the bill.”

Airlander is the company’s key product – a new generation of airship that can (in the case of the 50 model) travel for 2,600 miles and carry a substantial 50 tonnes of cargo in the form of six standardised shipping containers. The surveillance spin-off can stay airborne at 16,000ft for five days solid. Passenger versions are even mooted for the future. But the big question with airships is: are they safe?

Are modern airships safe?

“We use inert helium rather than hydrogen so can justifiably describe ourselves as the safest means of air transportation,” says Stephen, as we survey the Airlander parked in Cardington’s No. 1 Shed.

Stephen, 45, lives in Wimbledon, south London, with his wife and three children. From 1999-2002 he was the managing director of a software development company called Team Netsol but he’s been with HAV since its incorporation in 2007. A company man, he was bumped up to COO in 2010 and then to CEO in 2013. He is also a qualified solicitor (in English and Scottish law) who has also been a partner at law firm Dentons. He combines his CEO duties with continuing as lead legal adviser to HAV.

So how does his forensic legal mind approach the idea of doing business based on instinct?

“More or less everything in aerospace has to be validated by a reasoned decision,” he says. “So while instinct may guide the starting point for a decision it will only be final once all the factors have been weighed up. There is instinct in the decision as to how much time one spends on various opportunities before they show fruit.” He adds that: “Working in technology – aerospace or software – you have to put trust in staff. And have a very good board.”

New markets for airships

I ask about what happened with the Americans. HAV seemed to strike gold when they won a competition to design a so-called Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for the US military in 2010. The programme, though, was cancelled in 2013.

“We were contracted to sell three prototypes leading to 27 aircraft for the US government, but with US budgetary constraints, coupled with the drawdown from Afghanistan, only one was ever built, which we successfully negotiated to buy back,” explains Stephen. But he adds: “Turnover during the past three years has been $90 million.”

After the close-out of the LEMV programme, turnover is expected to be in the low millions per annum for 2013/14, capped by the move into the huge hangar at Cardington and coupled with UK civil air trials beginning on the Airlander 10 model.

HAV’s idea seems like a potent one and now the Airlander is being readied for flights in Britain.

“It is a spectacular sight. We are in the process of signing the contracts for the customer demonstrations – and those flights will be stopping the traffic all over the UK,” says Stephen proudly. “We have an independent market study that has calculated a market for more than 600 Airlanders over the next few years.”

On the wall is a giant world map. HAV’s CEO points to the north of Alaska and talks about opportunities to sell to a major oil company currently exploring there.

Lower emissions and less infrastructure needs

A key element driving HAV’s growth is that it is tapping into current global environmental concerns. Airships are often more energy-efficient than aircraft, burning fewer fossil fuels. And HAV wants to go one better – it’s developing the Airlander Zero, which will have no emissions due to electric engines and side-mounted solar panels.

Additionally, less infrastructure is required to land and load an airship than either ships or conventional aircraft – making Airlanders tantalising to the minerals and energy industries in their remote outposts, as well as those tasked with providing disaster relief to people in inhospitable areas. And eventually, who knows, passengers flying from cities like London to Amsterdam, too.

As for delivering maximum growth, Stephen’s belief is that: “It’s a question of finding opportunities for customers to use the aircraft. That is what the flight test and demonstration phases are designed to do.”

Image © Nick Dawe