The largest aircraft the world has ever seen – a hybrid that looks like a gigantic zeppelin or airship, but incorporates features of both the helicopter and the aeroplane – was unveiled in the UK on Friday.
Showing its new creation dubbed the Airlander, Cranfield-based Hybrid Air Vehicles said the aircraft can stay airborne for up to three weeks unmanned with a payload of 50 tonnes, and HAV says in future versions could carry 200 tonnes. The hybrid aircraft will be immediately useful in delivering humanitarian aid as well as transporting heavy freight across the world.
The 300ft (91m) Airlander is about 60ft longer than the biggest airliners, the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8. It is also almost 30ft longer than the cargo-carrying Antonov An-225, which until now was the longest aircraft ever built.
Although resembling an airship with its giant helium-filled balloon on top of a 150ft long flight deck, the Airlander's unique aerodynamic shape means it can generate lift like an aeroplane wing. There are plans to eventually use it to transport hundreds of tonnes of freight across difficult terrain throughout the world as well as deliver aid to risky areas.
It is environment-friendly, being partly filled with inert helium, and will also be used for surveillance and communications. The developers hope to make more of the 'green vehicles' which they hope to make capable of taking off from land, water, desert, ice and fields.
Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd (HAV), which created the hybrid craft, said they expect there will be as many airships as helicopters in the sky in years to come as they provide an environmentally-friendly and efficient solution to transporting dozens of tonnes of freight and reaching hard to access areas.
The company also expects to create 'luxury' hybrids, with infinity pools stretching across hundreds of feet, and planes being used for things like safaris and whale watching, because they run on often just one engine and so are quieter than traditional aircraft, besides being able to fly above remote areas.
Chris Daniels, head of partnerships and communications at (HAV), said, "These do something nothing else does. There's two variations - the ones that can stay in the air for a long period of time which can be used for things like communications and covering sports events, and the other with a pseudo-military use. Rather than having a police helicopter which are noisy and can only stay up for a limited period of time, these can stay airborne for a long time and be as overt or not as people want."
The latest hybrid, which cost about £30 million to make, will be used for communications but the company is set to start making an even larger version later this year which will be able to transport up to 50 tonnes of freight and passengers. It hopes the industry could eventually create around 1,000 jobs.
Daniels said because of the way helium is used to power the ships, every time the length is doubled they can carry up to eight times as heavy a load. He hopes this will mean they can eventually make craft capable of carrying up to 200 tonnes.
He said he can't see the ships replacing railways traditionally used to transport freight, but instead said the hybrid machines would be suitable for transporting very heavy loads in hard to reach areas like Canada and Africa.
He added, "The climate change issue around ice roads in Canada mean another solution is needed, whereas with the security issue in Africa, this could solve part of the problem."
Daniels said several companies had expressed interest in hybrids so far, and they had also had a handful of enquiries from people who "just want one".
"Maybe one day it will be the case that people take the Orient Express one way and a hybrid aircraft on the way back. The only limit is people's imagination."
Daniels said they will start building the larger version later this year, but hope to eventually be making them at a rate of around 10 a year.
Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden who partly funded the project with a $30 million contribution, described the craft as a ''game changer''.
''It will be able to cross the Atlantic and launch things right where they need to be,'' he told Radio 4's Today programme. It can reach about 100mph and stay airborne for about three-and-a-half days.''
He says he wants to generate publicity for the project and fly it round the world twice, and the company is currently running a competition for people to fly on the ship's maiden voyage - expected to take place in 2016.
The low carbon airship, known as the HAV304, is about 70 per cent more environmentally friendly than a cargo plane and doesn't need a runway to take off.
It has been displayed at Cardington in Bedfordshire in the only hangar big enough to accommodate it, built 100 years ago.
It is due to fly in the UK later this year and the project has received just a £2.5 million government grant to fund research into energy efficient and quieter planes.
Overlooking the miserly government grant, UK business secretary Vince Cable said, "The growing aerospace sector has the potential to generate thousands of new jobs and billions of pounds to the UK economy in contracts. That is why so much effort is being put in by government and industry to ensure we stay ahead of the competition and build on our strong position as second in the world for aerospace."
The ship was first flown in the USA. HAV plans to make between 600 and 1,000 of these type of airships in future and said similar projects are already being developed across the world in France, America, Russia and Australia.
It will eventually lead to the development of the Airlander 50, which would be able to transport 50 tonnes of freight and burn a quarter the fuel of a plane doing the same job. This craft will be even bigger, with plans to make it 390ft long (119m), 196 ft wide (60m) amd 115ft (35ft) high - making it taller than both Big Ben, which reaches 315 ft (96m) and the Statue of Liberty which towers to 305 ft (93m.)
Plans for this hybrid also include fitting two hovercraft type vehicles to the bottom so it is capable of landing on water. There will also be space for 50 passengers on board.
The US Army was initially going to be the owners of the first HAV Airlander, to use primarily for surveillance missions in Afghanistan. But defence budget cuts meant the project was cancelled and HAV stepped in to bring the Airlander home and bring it to life.
Dave Burns, the Airlander's chief test pilot, gave some reporters a guided tour of the machine which from the rear looks like three giant cigars stitched together.
''One of the problems with airships in the past has always been the ground handling with the number of people you need to manhandle it to keep it steady – the Airlander is the solution to that problem with its air cushioned landing system.
''The sheer mass of it makes it different to an airship, which are usually seven to eight tonnes. The Airlander is a 38-tonne machine so the inertia is incredible. Airships are like piloting an aircraft carrier in rough seas but this is very steady. It's a majestic machine,'' Burns said.
HAV's chief executive Stephen McGlennan said the plans to build up to 1,000 Airlanders in the coming decades could bring around 1,800 jobs to the area. The company has already had interest from governments and agencies all around the world.
Iron Maiden's Dickinson said a chance meeting at a fundraiser for a movie project he was working on at the time with HAV's founder Roger Munk, who died suddenly at the age of 62 in 2010, led him to become a key part of the project and put up the investment needed.
''I came here to a shed in about 2005 to see Roger and talk about the hybrid project,'' said Dickinson. ''I had no idea I was ever going to see my money again but everyone has busted a gut and it's brilliant to show it off to people today. In about five years' time we could have a sustainable form of aviation – much cleaner and greener. You never know, someone like Amazon could be using one of these in the future as a one-stop shop in its supply chain.''