Why airships and blimps disappeared – and how they might make a comeback

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), the company behind the Airlander airships, recently confirmed that it has received its first commercial order – ten to be delivered to European group Air Nostrum from 2026.

The HAV 304 Airlander 10 Hybrid Air Vehicles hybrid airship is seen in the air over a road on its maiden flight from Cardington Airfield near Bedford, north London. (Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Bedfordshire-based HAV has developed the 100-seat Airlander 10 from Cardington Airfield in the UK, with the aim of creating a more environmentally friendly form of travel, which the company says , “[cut] flight emissions by up to 90%” on its routes in the Spanish region as it prepares to “launch the production of [the] fleet in South Yorkshire, UK, this year, creating 1,800 new jobs.”

UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Hybrid aircraft could play an important role in the transition to cleaner forms of aviation, and it is wonderful to see the UK at the cutting edge of technology development. This agreement strengthens the possibility that the revolutionary Airlander 10 aircraft, British made and designed, will fly over the skies of Spain. It’s further evidence of how UK businesses are embracing new technologies to drive growth and support high-skilled UK jobs.

“We are exploring all possible ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” added Air Nostrum President Carlos Bertomeu. “It’s something we’ve been doing for many years. The Airlander 10 will significantly reduce emissions and for that reason we have entered into this agreement with HAV. Sustainability, which is good news for everyone, is already a non-negotiable fact in the day-to-day operations of commercial aviation. Agreements like these are a very effective way to achieve the decarbonization goals envisioned in the Fit for 55 legislative initiative.”

But why did it take airships so long to make a comeback?

Airlander 10
The huge aircraft hangars and Airlander 10 plane in the village of Cardington in Bedfordshire. The aircraft hangars are among the largest in the world and have been used for the construction of airships such as the R101. (Photo by Lovattpics/iStock)

What is an airship?

“Airship” is a term for all powered lighter-than-air craft, including airships (which have inflatable air compartments) and zeppelins (which have rigid compartments). They first appeared after the development of the internal combustion engine, although a few daring aviators tried to fly airships powered by steam engines. The first modern airship, the Zeppelin LZ1, took flight in 1900, three years before the Wright brothers made their famous flight.

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Due to their relative cost-effectiveness and longer range, airships were considered the most attractive form of air transport in the early 20th century. They also played a key role as military aircraft and were used for bombing raids in World War I. In the 1930s, luxury airships carried wealthy passengers across the Atlantic Ocean and were considered a technological marvel. They even had an influence on the urban landscape; the spire of the Empire State Building is said to have been designed to be converted into an airship dock.

The Problems Facing Airships

But that all came crashing down with the infamous explosion that destroyed the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. While landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the hydrogen-filled craft exploded in a massive fireball. The cause of the fire is still unknown today.

It was not the deadliest airship disaster – that honor goes to the British-built R101, which crashed in France in 1930 – but it was perhaps the most dramatic, and although the majority of Hindenburg‘s survived, airship travel became an instant pariah. It seems likely that airships would have been phased out anyway due to improvements in aircraft technology that allowed for much shorter travel times – but the Hindenburg The disaster ended the era of passenger airships virtually overnight.

The R101, moored at Cardington, Bedfordshire, 1929. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since then, the use of airships has been extremely limited, as advances in technology have allowed airplanes and helicopters to dominate aviation. Although airships served a useful surveillance role during World War II, today airships are primarily used for aerial photography at sporting events and as massive flying billboards.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the cost of fuel. Airships (or at least the non-explosive variety) require large amounts of helium, a rare substance, which can cost up to $100,000 for one trip. In 2012, rising helium prices were enough to bankrupt a tourist airship company in Northern California.

Some scientists even think that, unlike many resources, helium could one day run out: partly because it is light enough to escape Earth’s gravity well, but mainly because it is not profitable to harvest it once it has escaped into the atmosphere. All of this raises questions about whether a form of transportation that depends on it could ever, well, take off.

However, the HAV website states, “According to the US Geological Survey, there are at least 50 years of known helium reserves based on current consumption. 600 Airlander aircraft would represent only 1% of annual helium consumption.

Tom Grundy, CEO of HAV, summed up the industry’s hopeful fury by saying, “Airlander is designed to deliver a brighter future for sustainable aviation services, enable new transportation networks and provide rapid growth options for our clients. Our partnership with Air Nostrum Group, as the launch airline for Airlander 10, paves the way to that future. As countries like France, Denmark, Norway, Spain and the UK begin to put in place ambitious mandates for the decarbonisation of domestic and short-haul flights, Hybrid Air Vehicles and Air Nostrum Group are showing how we can get there – and get there soon.”