When the Hindenburg blew up in 1937, so did the airship industry. So why is Britain building a fleet of the world’s biggest, for the Americans, in our old Zeppelin sheds?
Airship travel has been a distant dream ever since a catastrophic fire in 1937 ripped through the LZ-129 Hindenburg as it neared its mooring mast in New Jersey, killing thirty-five people on board and one man on the ground.
Reporter Herbert Morrison’s vivid eye-witness testimony would become the industry’s epitaph: ‘It’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground… Oh the humanity!’
Could an industry dogged by tragedy and belonging to a bygone era finally have found the technology to cruise back into the mainstream?
The American Department of Defense thinks so. They have just handed a £315 million contract to design and build the world’s largest flying object to a small British company based in Bedfordshire. Having beaten aviation giants Lockheed Martin, Hybrid Air Vehicles have just four months to build the belly and bones of the craft – the payload module, the fuel tanks, the four engines, the propulsion ducts and bow thrusters (the prototype is pictured on the previous pages).
If all goes to plan these parts will leave its secure manufacturing facility in May, be loaded on a vast Antonov cargo plane, and flown to Arizona where they will join up with the ‘envelope’ (ie, the balloon).
Once assembly is complete, military technology giant Northrop Grumman will add the top-secret surveillance equipment and the vehicle will travel on its own power to a U.S. army base on the east coast of the United States. Once there the U.S. military will put the fully assembled 300ft long craft through its places, flying it with pilots and without.
When it finally completes testing and trials in January 2012, it will leave the US and fly back across the Atlantic to the UK, the first time this has happened since the heyday of Zeppelins in the Thirties.
Guided by a three-man crew, the giant ship will stay at a U.S. Army base here, ready to be deployed. It will be available for use in Afghanistan where it can be flown remotely, climbing to 20,000ft and circling for 21 days, an omniscient god perpetually surveying the battlefield and giving advance warnings of IED attacks and ambushes.
Testing has shown that bullets, even missiles pass directly through the envelope because of the incredibly low pressure. Reassuringly, the company insists it has come a long way from the technology of the Thirties.
It was in Cardington that the 777ft-long R101, the then biggest airship in the world, was built, and from here that it began its ill-fated final voyage at 6.24pm on Saturday October 4, 1930 bound for India; first planned stop Egypt.
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