The Future of Airships: Heavy Lifting

The Future of Airships: Heavy Lifting
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Airships to Complement the Future

Airships are considered to be the forefathers of modern flight. This seemingly functional behemoth was the darling of the crowd during the early days of inception in the 1930’s. The gargantuan size and somewhat cute design have fascinated the hearts and minds of people young and old alike. All of this changed right after the catastrophic Hindenburg disaster that occurred during the faithful day of May 6, 1937. The incident managed to take away 35 innocent lives and to abruptly end the famed airship era.

There has been a lot of talk and speculation about the creation of a heavy lift airship that is meant to be used for commercial purposes. The theory was to utilize the quiet efficiency of the airship in lifting heavy loads to different areas and terrain. The idea may sound sensible at first, but a quick look at the design and components of airships will leave one to believe that this idea will never make it out of the drawing board. Is this just another flight of fancy? Is it a result of a crazy engineers' imagination?

Airship Components

Without getting too technical on the terms, a modern airship may be classified into 4 types, namely:

  1. Non rigid airships
  2. Rigid airships
  3. Semi-rigid; and
  4. Hybrid

Non rigid airships are the types you see flying above football stadiums during advertising campaigns (more popularly called blimps.) These are essentially hot air balloons with a gondola or passenger cabin attached beneath the structure. Rigid airships or zepellins are bigger in size and could transport a small crowd of people. Rigid airships are made of steel cables, struts and beams that hold the shape of the airship in place. Unlike the blimp, the zepellin will hold its shape even in the absence of lifting gas. Rigid airships are essentially massive hulls covered in fabric.

Semi rigid airships have a central keel that bears the load and may have an additonal hull structure in both the cental and lower part of the ship. Hybrids are essentially airships that rely on aerodynamics to produce lift, mildly similar to airplanes.

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The single biggest problem about the concept of heavy lift airships would be the wind and tolerance to bad weather. Yes, airships are extremely susceptible to the powers of the wind due to the large size and low weight. Other problems would have to be buoyancy (due to helium leakage, an incident that occurs due to the lightweight fabric used in airships) and storage. Heavy lift airships need hangars to facilitate storage and proper maintenance.

Heavy Lift Airships

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The future of airships could be the Cargolifter CL160 Super-Heavy Lift Cargo Airship. This airship is developed by CargoLifter AG of Germany and has been awarded a contract to provide the heavy lifting services in the Pittsburgh magnetic levitation transport system. The CL160 is a semi rigid airship design that utilizes helium to produce lift. The fabric or envelope used is the result of advanced research and technology that minimizes helium leakage through the utilization of a multi layered membrane fabric. This material is more durable, lighter and less flammable than other conventional fabrics.

The CL160 “flying crane” was designed to carry a maximum payload of 160 metric tons to a maximum range of 10,000 kms. The statistics seem impressive considering the fact that helium gas is expensive compared to other lifting gas suitable for the task. But the presence of the Antonov AN-124 is also a viable option for heavy lifting purposes. This giant aircraft is capable of lifting up to 150 metric tons of weight and is already in service for various purposes, including humanitarian programs on foreign land.


Skeptics would agree that heavy lift airships are all part of an engineering fantasy that is not worth the risk when it comes to overall safety. But continuing advances in science and technology may soon provide the answer to man’s need for a heavy lift airship. Who would have thought that mobile phones would turn into compact personal computers that could connect wirelessly to the Internet? Science manages to find the answer to all our needs.

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