You don't work in a grey concrete block in Bedford for the incredible views. But you may work there to bring incredible views within reach. Inside the offices of Hybrid Air Vehicles, an hour north of London, is a simulator for a new type of luxury air travel that could give the rich and adventurous birds-eye views of the Arctic and the Amazon without the need for runways.
A couple of rudimentary aeroplane seats, four large screens, two control panels — this just about gives the sense of what it would like be to steer the world's largest aircraft, a blimp called the Airlander 10.
"It's tremendous," says David Burns, Hybrid Air Vehicles' chief test pilot, as we settle into the simulator. On the screens in front of us is a mock-up of San Francisco. Our craft gently rolls forward, a radically different experience from the usual hurling motion of take-off. We have to imagine the Airlander's giant gas container above us, holding enough helium to fill 16 Olympic swimming pools. Some people have compared the shape to buttocks.
"I would never say that," says Burns, who is deeply seriously about the joys of looking at the Earth from above. "Even flying over water is not boring. Apart from the odd thing that comes out of the water — a whale, a manatee — [there's] the pattern of the waves, the sun reflecting. There's just always things to see." And unlike a commercial aeroplane, the Airlander takes you close enough to see them — cruising as low as 1,000 feet (304 metres).
To date, the Airlander 10 has done seven test flights. Now a Swedish company, OceanSky Cruises, is selling tickets for trips to the North Pole starting in 2023. It promises "a flying five-star hotel", with polar bears and whales lingering below. The round-trip from Svalbard — including cocktail, dinner and breakfast on the airship, lunch in the snow, and another dinner and cocktail on board — takes 38 hours; it will be guided by Robert Swann, the first person to walk on both the North and South Poles. Meanwhile, other tour operators are in talks with Hybrid Air Vehicles about using the airships for trips in warmer climes, including for visits to the temples of southern Egypt.
"By landing on the most inaccessible place on Earth, we can show the world that you can do amazing things with airships," says Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, founder of OceanSky and previously a commercial pilot. The journey to the Pole will be "something between a balloon ride and a small aeroplane — much quieter, much smoother".
Staring at the screens in Bedford, with some creativity you can envisage wandering lonely as a cloud over the ice floes. Unlike a conventional flight simulator, there is no shaking — because the airship is designed to move slowly, at a maximum speed of 92 miles per hour. On an actual trip, passengers will be able to open the window — because the Airlander's cabin is not pressurised.
Luxury tourism is the latest (and perhaps the most intriguing) attempt to make airships a viable economic proposition. The craft has long been promoted as the air transport of the future. In the 1980s, when David Burns first flew them, they were floating billboards.
In 2010, the US army paid for an Airlander 10 prototype, with the idea of carrying out surveillance over Afghanistan, before funding was pulled. Other uses — from cargo transport to providing connectivity at music festivals — have been explored too.
At a time when environmentally conscious consumers are cutting down on flights — and the aviation industry faces up to the existential emissions challenge — the Airlander's moment may have finally come.
"The debate around sustainable aviation has completely the wrong focus. We're talking about the fuel, when we should be talking about the aircraft," says OceanSky's Lawaczeck.
For each tonne transported a mile, the Airlander burns half as much fuel as a large aircraft and a sixth as much as a helicopter. (Per passenger, the difference is likely to be less, given that the Airlander does not pack people in.) Hybrid Air Vehicles is also working on electric engines to power the Airlander 10 — beginning "a development pathway that leads to zero-carbon flight".
The Airlander 10 marks a big departure from the airships of the 1980s, which were so small that they had barely enough room for the pilots and a toilet — let alone those of the 1930s, with their rigid structures and flammable hydrogen fuels. Instead, its fabric incorporates Mylar and Kevlar; its cabin is built from fibreglass, making it virtually invisible to radar. A mock-up of the cabin now built in Bedford resembles a superyacht — with a bar, a lounge, viewing panes in the floor — as well as eight double cabins, each with a fulsome view.
The promise of airships is that you cover distances low enough that you can see the world, slow enough that jet-lag is not part of the equation. "You take your binoculars with you," says Burns, the pilot. "You can just see so much of the countryside."
Lawaczeck says that many people ask about turbulence. "If you hit turbulence [in an plane] at 500 miles per hour, it feels like you're in a washing machine. Running into turbulence in an airship — that would be more like waves."
On tourist trips, the Airlander is likely to travel at about 50 knots. The journey from Svalbard to the North Pole will take 15 hours each way, with passengers spending six hours on the ground. "We're not here to displace passenger flights across the Atlantic. We're not here to displace shipping across the Atlantic," says Tom Grundy, a one-time defence executive who took over as chief executive of Hybrid Air Vehicles in May. "The idea is to make the journey part of the experience."
View this post on Instagram
Rethink the skies with Airlander 10. Our aircraft can access places a jet, yacht or helicopter can't. Follow the link in our bio to explore the opportunities on our new website #Airlander10 #RethinkTheSkies #PrivateTravel #LuxuryTravel #Aircraft #AirTravel #SustainableAircraft #GreenTravel #PrivateAircraft #AircraftLovers #GreenTraveller
A post shared by Hybrid Air Vehicles (@hybridairvehicles) on
The Airlander does not need an airport to take off and land — "any large, reasonably flat space including ice, sand, marsh, whatever" is sufficient, says Grundy. It will eventually be able to land on water too.
OceanSky's offering is unmistakably an elite experience. Tickets started at US$62,000 ($97,900) per two-person cabin; they have now climbed to US$79,000 ($125,000). Lawaczeck promises some "really famous names" among the takers. He also talks up the new generation of aircraft — Hybrid Air Vehicles' plans include the Airlander 50, which could accommodate up to 200 passengers.
What is required, however, is financial commitment. Hybrid Air Vehicles was formed in 2007 out of the assets of a previous company that had gone into administration. Since then it has absorbed about US$150m ($237m) in funding, producing one prototype that flew in 2016 and 2017. According to accounts from August this year, its future — and the prospects for OceanSky's 2023 trips to the North Pole — hinge on raising £30m ($60m) in funds, followed by a further £100m ($200m) to build the first three aircraft. This, in turn, relies on a range of potential customers. The Airlander has a "common core" that can then be customised to different uses, such as surveillance and transporting employees to mining and oil and gas installations.
The irony of a low-carbon aircraft being used by the fossil fuel industry is not lost on Grundy. "Those contradictions are around us all the time," he says. He argues that the Airlander is lower-impact than the alternative; some environmentalists would say that anything that makes life easier for the oil and gas industry is unwelcome.
Not everyone is optimistic about airships. Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, says the fundamental choice was made when the Wright brothers surpassed Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, whose vision had included airships.
"It's a technological road not taken," says Aboulafia. "The odds that we would redo the evolutionary path are not all that great . . . You could do all of these things [that Airlander 10 is designed for]. Somebody just has to say, 'We're going down that path'."
Four other companies — including Lockheed Martin — have developed serious airship proposals. Hybrid Air Vehicles remains the only one that has flown, and the one that appears most refined. The Airlander 10 is already a sleeker, more aesthetically pleasing vessel than the 2016 prototype built for the US army. The fuel tank has been removed from the back of the plane, allowing a longer cabin. The idea of regular airship trips by 2024 is at least less fanciful than Donald Trump's target of landing US astronauts on the Moon by the same date.
Meanwhile, in Bedford, Burns spends about 15 hours a week in the simulator, building up a reservoir of data for the Airlander's engineers. We start our flight in San Francisco, because the software package is best. (By contrast the images of East Anglia lack detail, "so if I go flying for two hours, I can't necessarily find my way back," explains Burns.)
We cruise up the Bay at an imagined height of 1,000 feet over Silicon Valley. The software shows green fields that are in reality now surely housing. Travelling at 50 knots, we take half an hour to reach the city centre. "Let's just get to Alcatraz and then I'll be happy," says Burns. The Airlander 10 has much further to travel before it gets on the market. Then again, with airships, the journey is part of the experience.
Written by: Henry Mance
© Financial Times