Blimps Are Back—And They Might Be the Future of Air Travel

With new technology that’s safer than ever, airships may start replacing planes—with way less damage to the environment.

We know what some of you might be thinking. Airships are like those giant blimp things, right? Like the one from the infamous 1937 Hindenburg disaster? Well, yes and no. Because while modern airships are similar in concept, that tragic accident was nearly 100 years ago, and technology has come a long, long way since then.

Airships are back, but this time, they’re safer than ever, so you won’t have to worry about Edward R. Murrow narrating part of your life. In fact, the new plans are so promising, people like Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, have invested in it, along with quite a few companies. But before we discuss how to fly through the skies sans-plane, let’s learn from the past, shall we?

Hindenburg
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Blimping to the past

In December 1783, French inventor Jacques Charles tried to make the hot air balloon better. The Montgolfier brothers had invented it six months earlier that same year, but up to that point, the flying contraptions had only been filled with (you guessed it) hot air. But as all inventors surely knew at the time, hydrogen is lighter than air. So Charles ran with it. Fill a balloon up with hydrogen, and it should go higher than anything filled with just hot air. And that’s exactly what happened.

Of course, those were just balloons, not the complicated dirigibles we know and love today. Airships floated into existence in 1852, thanks to French engineer Henri Giffard. It seems the French were certainly on the cutting edge of air transport. The hydrogen balloons were great, but you couldn’t really steer them anywhere. So Giffard elongated the shape of the balloon, strapped a steam-powered engine to a propeller, and took off. The new equipment allowed him to actually maneuver the thing through the skies. He went 17 miles, hitting the lightning-fast top speed of 5 miles per hour.

Fast forward to 1900, and we officially meet the Zeppelin. By now, gasoline-powered engines had been invented and were being used to keep airships moving. German military officer Ferdinand Zeppelin invented a new airship, tricked out with 17 hydrogen cells, two engines, two propellers, and a rigid aluminum frame. From there on out, Zeppelins were the preferred mode of transportation. Until 1937, that is, when the Hindenburg burst.

From that point on, commercial airplanes took over to shuttle people through the skies. And unfortunately, they’ve been spewing incredible amounts of C02 into the Earth’s atmosphere ever since.

airship
Hybrid Air Vehicles

Airships of the future

Let’s take a minute to all think about the things we hate about planes. One, obviously, is the space we don’t get to have onboard. More importantly, though, is the mass amounts of pollution getting pumped into the air every day by planes. Seriously, we’re talking about a hundred times more CO2 emissions per hour than buses, racking up to 1 billion tons of CO2 annually, which is more than the overall emissions of most countries in the world. Planes also go really fast, which is great for getting where you want to be in a shorter period of time, but not so great for those of us firmly in the slow travel camp.

Well, a big floating airship is about to drift in and disrupt our travel practices. Unsurprisingly, the French are back in the forefront of innovation, with a new company called Flying Whales that has received backing from the French government. But they’re meeting the emissions problem head-on alongside other airship companies, like California-based LTA Research & Exploration, which has backing from Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin; and UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), which is head of the pack with its Airlander aircraft that’s been in the works for about a decade. (It’s important here to say that HAV doesn’t consider the Airlander an airship. Instead, it’s “a new type of hybrid aircraft, combining multiple technologies to unlock capability, cost, and environmental benefits,” Ben Gascoyne, a spokesperson for the company, told me.)

Flying Whales’ airship will be filled with helium and powered by a hybrid electric engine running on sustainable aviation fuel. The company’s head of communications, Romain Schlack, says that the airship (which can carry 60 tons of cargo) will be more environmentally friendly than a helicopter, producing less than a tenth of the carbon emissions. HAV’s Airlander craft will also use helium, and Gascoyne notes that by 2026, the craft will use 90 percent less emissions than regular airplanes. LTA has signed on to the helium party, as well.

aircraft
Hybrid Air Vehicles

There are a few problems, though. Although helium doesn’t burst into flames like hydrogen can, it weighs more than hydrogen, costs more than hydrogen, and has a limited supply because helium is non-renewable. The Federal Aviation Authority doesn’t generally allow helium’s use in certified airships, but the European Aviation Safety Agency does, as long as the design of the blimp mitigates the risk of its use. Schlack told CNN in March that it’s not really enough helium use to make a difference.

A few companies, though, are avoiding helium and instead are looking to increase the safety of hydrogen airships and bring them back to the market—particularly Manitoba-based BASI, Belgium-based FlyWin, and the hydrogen delivery company H2 Clipper. Those advances are underway, and surely we’ll hear more about them as the industry grows ever larger.

Let’s all take the dirigible

Passengers will be able to ride the first commercial airships in 2026. HAV plans to launch Airlander that year, with capacity to carry 100 passengers. We'll be keeping an eye out to see who gets what will surely be a highly-coveted seat.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.