Saturday, 18 April 2015

THE HYBRID GESTATES (Airlander April 2015)

In 2014 an old airship hanger in Cardington Bedfordshire sold for £2million. Shortly after the American equivalent hanger was bought by Google for $1.16 billion. And that was just a 60 year lease.

This is probably indicative of nothing other than Googles acquisitional nature and the difference in property prices between Bedfordshire and Silicon Valley - but it might indicate British industry and finance is missing something happening right under its nose.

I'm not here to talk about the potential of this industry - there are professionals doing that here
and here.
I'm just blogging my trip to the Airlander factory. You'll find my gushing about Cardington and the Imperial Airship Scheme here - all my talk about Airships stops on that page because
Airlander is not about Airships. Looks deceive.
Airlander is not an airship. Airlander is a Hybrid Air Vehicle.

That bulbous shape may contain helium  (the inert gas - not explosive hydrogen, which filled the old airships) but it gains 40% of it's lift from its shape. Airlander is actually a heavier than air craft making it a great deal easier to maneuver at ground level, and has handled 50mph cross winds which are the standard measure for civilian air transport landings.

And there's more - a lot a more. The Hybrid Air Vehicles story so far is essentially this:
  • Pentagon throws billions of dollars at a giant heavy lifter drone that can be flown into a warzone by a pilot, landed on any remote ground, and flown remotely, like a drone after that. British engineers working on it create a hybrid aircraft which looks like an airship but is actually heavier than air and generates 40% of it's lift just from it's shape.
  • Prototype is built and flown successfully in 2012
  • As part of the pull out from Afghanistan Congress cancels the Project.
  • British engineers recover the prototype and bring back to Cardington.
First flight in 2012
Fortuitously, at the same time (see other post) Bedfordshire County Council sells the site of what was the Imperial Airship Works in Cardington to a property developer (yes - this is all driven by the UK housing crisis)
- with the proviso that they restore the gigantic airship sheds which are now Grade two listed buildings. Hanger 2 is used as a studio and is basically Christopher Nolan's second home (BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE DAR KNIGHT RISES plus INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR were shot in Cardington Hanger 2). Hanger 1 will shortly be a fully restored Airship shed built to accommodate the largest ships of the 1930s, the heyday of that technology.As a Grade two listed building there are only a few uses to which this giant airship shed can be used. As fate would have it..

We were asked not to take close up photographs. Amongst the recent guests before us was a representative of the Swedish air force, (also a friend of Airlander investor Bruce Dickinson - called 'Tin Tin' apparently) who remarked that the controls in the cockpit were exactly the same as the F-35 which is still years away from service.
As I know from my CyberSecurity Msc that the Chinese hacked the plans to the F-35 some time ago I guess this will have the added advantage of saving in training time in future contracts with China.

So hidden in a shape from apparently from an earlier era is actually some very current technology. The capability for remote piloting, effectively making the aircraft a giant drone, is still there but currently unused. Yes - the most advanced parts of this project are currently on the backburner because they are a distraction!

Much of the work being put into Airlander is breaking new ground in aeronatutics. Perhaps in a wider context Airlander is the impetus that the civil aviation industry needs to bring itself into the 21st Century. Main holdup at present is that EU regulations simply do not exist for hybrid air vehicles -  and what the regulations there are on airships are being hastily updated.

"Type certificates may be required that deal with matters such as airworthiness, noise, capabilities, etc.  Different configurations would also need to be addressed, looking at fixed wing, rotorcraft, airship and powered lift operations."

There are no regulations on long distance drone flying despite most of the current commercial flying being highly automated. Airlander is prompting a re-think on this as well. Why should Airbus pilots not sleep on long haul flights while the aircraft is on autopilot? - based on recent events the passengers might actually be safer.

Another innovation - Because the cockpit of Airlander is so quiet the engines are monitored by camera and microphone. A question I never got to ask (see below) is how common is engines monitored by camera and microphone in the wider world of air travel? You assume it wouldn't be much of a problem to achieve but as we recently found that modern passenger airliners contain black boxes containing technology concurrent with 8 track stereo I guess we can't take anything for granted.
Has Airlander thought of marketing it's camera and microphone monitoring of engines technology separately to Boeing and Airbus?

Airlander rear propulsor, derived from Mercedes diesels

Most immediate civilian use in the UK?
A mobile phone mast for Glastonbury Festival. If you've been there you'll know why. 350,000 highly connected Glastonbury Festival patrons need unlimited mobile usage but just for 7 days. There is also some talk of having a band play on the Airlander to the Festival below. I think they'll have to jazz up the colour scheme somewhat for this but apparently the outer skin is where most of the Pentagon's money went. A flexible, very tough radar absorbent material, the Airlander people seem very protective of it and wouldn't take suggestions of solar coverings. 

As well as the interest from Sweden already alluded to there is enquiries from civil air companies in Canadan and military interest from the UK, There is is still continuing interest from the United States miltary and DARPA which is understandable as to date they have paid for most of it.

Chris Daniels, Hybrid Air Vehicles Head of Partnerships and Communications seemed disappointing that there had not been more media coverage beyond comparisons in GQ with Kim Kardashian's arse. I tried to suggest that interest would pick up when the competition hots up, as can be fond with SpaceX prize and Bloodhound.
"You are in a race with Lockheed aren't you?"

According to Chris Lockheed's competing vehicle is a concept, not even a design at this stage. The other American competition, Aeros Dragon Dream, based on quite smart compressed helium technology, will not work without further development and in any case had it's hanger collapse on the prototype recently. I noticed myself that is a US Marine Hanger. Those aware of the recent track record of the US Army Corps of Engineers might not be too surprised by this turn of events.

Airlanders fins still in storage

The mobile landing gantry betrays the project's military origins and looks suitably Thunderbirds at the same time

Hard hats are required at Cardington, not because the interior or the contents are falling to pieces but because the interior is so enormous pigeons are roosting within it and they often pick up loose items which are then dropped. On a recent visit a UK minister was nearly hit by a loose item stolen by a pigeon which bounced off the Airlander.

Hybrid Air Vehicles' head office within the restored hanger will be in the old Cutting Room, which was used to cut silk for the Airships of the 1930s.

Rear of Airlander Prototype
In a mirror of cinematic events in Hanger 2 the Airlander Prototype has been christened MARY, partly because it is an anagram of ARMY (the original customer) and partly because of a the female mutant in Paul Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL.

Back in the 1930s access to helium was a major issue. The United States jealously controlled all the worlds reserves reserves meaning European lighter than air projects had to use hydrogen as a dangerous alternative. In the 1980s the Americans sold off all it's Helium reserves causing a crash in the global price. It has since recovered but as helium is a by product of mining for natural gas access is no longer an issue. Airlander currently gets it's helium from BOC and then refines it to a 99% purity. Before long it expects to pickup up helium direct from Qatar at much lower prices.

Mid hanger wind break
Despite having the same lift potential the hybrid Airlander prototype takes up so little of the interior space of Hanger 1, compared to previous Airship occupants from the 1930s, it requires a windbreak in the middle of the hanger to protect it from wind blowing in off the Bedfordshire steppe.

Other notes of interest
  • BBC want to show next years test flight live (current Airlander focus is on engine testing while the civil air regulations struggle to catch up with technology)
  • Top Gear producer Any Wilman has been in contact with Airlander all year for reasons Chris Daniels would not elaborate on
Top gantry of Hanger 1 just visible

Stupid questions I never got to ask
  • Have you thought of painting it green and putting a huge 2 on it just for the publicity?
  • You refer to Flight Deck, Mid Body Aft body as the 'Payload Module' does that suggest, like TB2 you have plans to swap for different Payload modules?
  • I read somewhere one of the designers has met Barnes Wallis - is there any Wallis in inspired design features? Geodesic construction?
  • You are quite keen to promote the Hybrid Air Vehicle concept - do you think Airship fetishists will be a hindrance to you ? (glad I didn't ask this one)
  • What is shooting in the other hanger at the moment? Has Christopher Nolan poked his head in here yet?
  • How much of a cross over is there into drone technology? Do you have plans to launch and recover drones from the Airlander?
  • Do you have any orders yet from rich Billionaires?
  • Any crossover/contact with other British hitech industry? Reaction Engines perhaps?

Can you spot the person in this lineup who knows nothing about engineering?

Ghosts of Imperial Airships

Lying apparently forgotten In the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside are two hangers so large they could be mistaken for vast upturned ocean liners made from corrugated iron. The patches of rust from as yet un-restored parts (only one corner now) are a relief to the eyes in that they are the only way of judging the scale of these enormous structures which date back to the early 1930s and are Grade Two listed buildings.
Cardington as seen from side road (white van bottom right)

GoogleMap screenshot of Bedford showing scale of Cardington (bottom right)
This is Cardington, for most of it's life regarded as a monument to technological arrogance and an embarrassing Imperial folly. Now - not so much. I'll get onto my visit to Hybrid Air Vehicles in Hanger 1 in the next post, but for this one I just want to convey the grandeur of these buildings and their environs. This isn't just the ultimate post of a man loving a shed - it's an appreciation of a nexus of alternative realities.

Main doors, Hanger 1
Cardington was to be the base of the Imperial Airship Scheme, the 1920s-30s effort to link the already crumbling British Empire together with a fleet of world spanning lighter than air liners based on the work of Count von Zeppelin.

Such was the importance of the project two gigantic airships were built to test the concept. The first, the R100, was built to a strict budget using tried materials and techniques by a private company (Vickers, in Yorkshire) and designed by a promising young designer called Barnes Wallis, who would go on to become an engineering legend immortalised as the creator of the bouncing bomb in THE DAMBUSTERS. The other airship, the R101 which was increasingly seen as a competitive exercise, was built as a government project actually at Cardington. Government was Labour at the time and so the papers dubbed the R100 the 'Capitalist' airship and the R101 the 'Socialist' airship. To be more accurate one was built by engineers using established engineering techniques, and the other was built by a committee to a timetable.

The unfolding tragedy is explained best by Nevile Shute in his book Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, which we have to take as the authoritative source as he was a designer on the R100 at the time. It is summarised well here

Un-restored corner of Hanger 1
The R100 was an unqualified success and made a maiden trip to Canada. Amongst many of  Barnes Wallis's innovations, including the strong, light geodesic construction that would be used in Wellington aircraft in World War 2, the R100 was designed to be easily mass produced by materials and factories already available in Britain at the time.

The R101 was a disaster even before it left the drawing board. Pushed into a maiden flight to India by political pressure, before it was ready and in the middle of a raging storm, it crashed in France killing 48 of the 54 on board including many influential members of government and society - wiping out at a stroke all the influential advocates for airship travel in Britain. Shortly after the blameless R100 was quietly scrapped.

Hidden is a restored corner of Hanger 1 is one of the original docking towers from the 1930s
Other high profile airship disasters followed. The USS Ackron and USS Macon, giant lighter than air aircraft carriers for the US Navy, foundered in storms in the Pacific. Shockingly the Nazi airship Hindenburg exploded in front of the worlds camera's - perhaps as a result of terrorism. (In similar fashion to the fate of the R100, the Graf Zeppelin I, Hindenburg's predecessor, veteran of 590 flights covering more than a million miles was scrapped after nearly a decade of successful service) . These killed airship travel world wide, but particularly in this country, 80 years after the event R101 is a still byward for disaster so strong that modern equivalents refuse to associate themselves with the term Airship.

No amount of train crashes, air disasters and Titanic tragedies have had the effect on an industry that the R101 disaster had. The truth is the British Empire stopped paying for itself some time in the 1920s and became a burden after that (financially as well as morally) so who knows what the Imperial Airship Scheme might have achieved. Likely World War 2 would have ended it anyway, but it is hard not to stand next to Cardington and think how busy and influential the place is in the universe of alternative reality's we are told exist beyond our own.

"R-100 attached to mooring mast in Bedforshire, 1928" by Nationaal Archief - Zeppelin aan landingsmast / Zeppelin attached to mooring mastUploaded by PDTillman. Via Wikimedia Commons"

Inside Hanger 1, the original floor from 1917 is now several feet beneath the current level.
Both of the giant hangers at Cardington and being fully restored. For details on current going's on see the next post in this blog.

Just north of Cardington, well within site of the sheds, is Shortstown. This was the 1930s new town, built in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside to accommodation the families of those working on the Imperial Airship scheme. This lost little world has been rediscovered by the property developer, who has added to the charm of the original community by renovating the great old Shorts building and adding a much larger modern housing development which (I think) compliments the original site.