Many thanks to the other members of the Manuever Air Support Working Group who have contributed their ideas and expertise.
Mention airships to most people, and it will conjure up two images: either that of the little Goodyear blimps used for advertising, or that of the Hindenberg or R101 in flames. This shows what a skewed view of history one can sometimes get.
The first powered airship flew in 1852, and the first rigid airship in 1900. The US military did not stop using blimps until 1962.
For several decades airships provided a safe transcontinental passenger service.
“Graf Zeppelin, a smaller hydrogen airship (than the Hindenberg), had made 650 flights. More than 18,000 passengers were delivered safely during the nine years that the Graf Zeppelin flew. It flew 144 flights non-stop to and from Berlin across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro or New York. The Graf Zeppelin travelled more than one million miles or 40 times around the world including a 20 day cruise around the world in 1929 on a publicity flight and it made a trip to the North Pole in 1931.”
This site also reveals the interesting fact that 62 out of the 97 people on the Hindenberg survived: considerably better odds than one would get in a modern airliner crash.
Modern airships use non-flammable helium as a lift gas.
Although airships provided nearly a century of use, they are in some ways an idea that was tried before its time. Using many modern technologies, the airship has the potential to be one of the most important transportation systems of the 21stcentury.
“Our Navy and CNA and IDA analyses show that for equal mission accomplishments (ASW, air defence, surveillance), LTA (Lighter Than Air) does it for about one third the life cycle cost of fixed-wing aircraft and about 1/4 against helicopters. For commercial freight, it is much cheaper than fixed-wing air and about twice the cost of sea ships, but gets there in a few days vs. weeks. And for the hybrid aircraft form of LTA (with air cushion landing gear), can off-load anywhere (does not use airports).
Materials used in the envelope are now predicted to be good for 20+ years versus the good ol' days when it was 6 to 8 years. In WWII we operated those ancient blimps all over the world (many in Med) without hangars. You only need hangar for construction and heavy overhaul.”
“A surge of interest in the airship provides another example-use of a by-passed technology that can now be made with advanced fabrics or materials that give it much greater payload capacity. Airships are ecologically sound and could be used for slow but cheap and safe transport in regions where there are no roads-Brazil, perhaps, or Nigeria.”
The only real advantage that conventional heavier than air (HTA) aircraft have is speed. Airships can move heavier loads for significantly lower operating costs, and can take them to exactly where they are needed. Air cushion landing gear allows the airship to land on any reasonably flat surface.
Two-thirds of freight in the USA and Europe is moved over land. The airship can move cargo for costs that are competitive with rail, road and HTA transport.
Many of the airship designs how being proposed are hybrids: they are slightly heavier than air, and stay aloft with a combination of buoyancy and aerodynamic lift. One of the advantages of this is that it allows a more streamlined shape, so the airship can reach greater speeds. There are several other modern innovations that may increase the capabilities of the airship.
This article in Popular Mechanics notes that the carbon footprint of constructing and operating airships is lower than that of HTA aircraft and maritime shipping.
The upper surface of an airship offers a large area on which to mount solar panels, further reducing running costs and extending range. Brady Hauth sent me this interesing article:
An array of such structures could form the upper surface of an airship, using helium to inflate the lens. This would have the added benefit that sunlight would also warm the helium.
In the past, several airships have had the capability to launch and recover HTA aircraft. The USS Akron and its sister ship the Macon even had internal hanger space for several biplanes. Such systems could be used to launch UAVs/RPVs and micro-lights. It is also possible that the large airships could include helipads on their upper surfaces.
The capacity of airships means that in many ways it is more useful to compare them to ocean-going ships rather than aircraft. An airship can carry payloads of similar size, but at far greater speeds (100kts+), and, of course, they can take overland routes.
Modern weather monitoring systems allow airships to avoid adverse weather systems and exploit favourable winds.
Chuck Myers: “They are the world's fastest and most survivable and most comfortable ships.”
Larry Altersitz: “LTAs are perfect for nation-building efforts in underdeveloped places. Takes stuff directly to the site and places it on the ground for the folks to use. Afghanistan, anyone? Central Africa? No paying of “duties,” “commissions,” “baksheesh,” “squeeze” or “la mordita” to local authority figures for transit.”
Indeed, the airship does have great potential for both developed and developing nations. Troops and aid workers in Afghanistan were shocked at the virtually non-existent internal transport network. Moving supplies by transport plane is expensive and the capacity of aircraft that can operate on rough landing fields is limited. Some writers suggested that what was needed was some form of “air-barge”, but few realized that airships could have easily filled such a role.
The airship also offers new trade possibilities. Fresh fruit is quite expensive in Japan. An airship could move large cargoes of fruit from the western coast of North and South America, and can do this in such a time that refrigeration is unnecessary. On the return trip. the airship can carry cars and electrical goods. The Skycat 1000 could carry 800 cars on such a trip.
Another interesting application of airships for the developing world is as a flying hospital. Currently some sterling work is being done with a converted airliner, but obviously this can only land in areas with airports that can handle large jet aircraft. This means many people in remote areas will never be able to reach medical aid. Imagine how much could be done if such a hospital was built into an airship that can land on any reasonably flat space.
The current jetliner used to provide medical aid needs about half a day of re-organization before it can start receiving patients. The airship will probably have sufficient room that this will not be necessary.
The airship probably won't totally replace the police helicopter, but it can certainly supplement it. While we are unlikely to see exciting TV footage of speeding cars chased by the “police blimp”, airships are ideal for surveillance. A helicopter on such duties burns lots of fuel and draws attention to itself. Helicopters need lots of maintenance, so they can only spend so many hours aloft. An airship, on the other hand, is quiet and just hangs there.
I had planned to write this page to illustrate how useful the airship is to a developing nation, but it soon became obvious how much wider the applications are.
As far as military applications go, a question that will be foremost in any reader's mind is that of vulnerability. Airships are, in fact, very damage resistant.
In the First World War, many fighter pilots found they could empty every MG round they had into an airship and do little practical damage. The incendiary bullets of the time did not prove any more useful.
A modern airship is likely to be even harder to damage, since it uses helium rather than hydrogen and can use modern fire-resistant hull materials. Many modern SAMs, AAMs and anti-aircraft cannon are likely to only do minor damage to such large aircraft.
A modern airship has plenty of capacity to carry various countermeasure systems.
The modern military airship will probably use one or more diesel engines as a powerplant, and the use of helium means that these can safely be mounted deep inside the airship's body. Power produced is used to drive electric motors in the propeller hubs. Such an arrangement not only allows powerplant maintenance in flight, but also shields the powerplant from heat-seeking missiles and IR detectors. Many of the engines of a military LTA are likely to be mounted on the upper surface to shield them from ground fire and sensors.
Best selling military author Ralph Zumbro comments:
“If the engines are mounted internally, and are air-cooled, they are lighter and the waste heat goes to heat the helium, increasing the lift still further. At higher altitudes, you might NEVER need an outside heat vent. Better have a vent for landings, though. The air-cooled diesel engine used in the Patton series tank and the current tank retriever would be an extremely good airship power plant, if mated to a good generator. It has been in production by Continental since the early 1960s, and the bugs are long gone.”
The military airship will not totally replace the helicopter, the C-130 or the B-52. One of its most useful applications, however, is strategic airlift. A C-5 or C-17 can only carry one MBT, and needs specially prepared landing fields. A Skycat 1000, however, could carry a dozen MBTs (nearly a company) and can land nearly anywhere.
Chuck Myers points out that by using airships to meet a hypothetical crisis in Indonesia, troops could be on the spot with heavy equipment from Australia and Japan within 2 days. Units from Hawaii would arrive a day and a half later. Looked at another way, if the Falklands task force had been using airships, it could have flown from the British Isles to the Falklands in under 4 or 5 days. This would have meant less time for the Argentine invaders to prepare their defences.
Another idea of Mr Myers takes the idea of the flying hospital to its logical conclusion: the flying MASH unit. An airship moving wounded has enough room inside to allow it to have a field surgery unit, so serious cases can be operated on in flight. It should be possible to construct airships with their own helipads for casevac choppers.
Force is of little use unless it is applied accurately. This is why surveillance systems such as AWACs and JointSTARs are so important. Airships can stay up for days at a time, so are very suitable for mounting such systems. Spy satellites are very useful for gathering intelligence, but are expensive and may not be in the correct orbit when you need them to be. High-altitude, remotely-controlled airships such as the Stratsat can provide an alternative.
Another surveillance idea is the idea of reviving the tethered observation balloon. Instead of a pair of guys in a basket with binoculars and a telephone, the balloon (aerostat) would instead mount a box of high tech sensors, with the operators comfortable in a M113 beneath.
Larry Altersitz: “A few solar panels on the top for daylight power, a lightweight power cord up to the balloon for night ops, hang a thermal imager, low-light TV-zoom lens under it with a digital compass reading and laser range-finder (total sensor package less than 80 lb), you'd be able to quiet a lot of places real fast. 1 km up is the right height and you have the viewers in an M113 or M577. Thin kevlar on the underside to dissuade shooters and counterfire to discourage recividism. Think advertising balloon over a shopping center.”
One criticism of this idea is that it tells everybody for miles around where you are and that the tether base becomes a prime target for enemy SOF. The quick answer to that is “good”. You use the aerostat (or a dummy) as Spetznaz bait. Ralph Zumbro explains how he used similar techniques in Vietnam:
“In RVN, all 1/69 units used crossings, bridges, fords, etc, as bait. The drill was that just after we had “Armorized” an area by installing fords, passes, etc., with the dozer tank, we would alert the LRRPs, who would monitor the new traps for mining parties and just harvest them while they worked. We also sat on high spots with our searchlights on IR scan and busted nightcrawlers.
If you have either an aerostat or SkyCastle in the area, you KNOW where the enemy is going to head for, especially with the aerostat. You send out the patrols.
Our tanks also had the artillery controls and we could range and traverse to a likely spot on daylight, and then hit it at random hours after dark. Captured VC/NVA told us that they had lost many comrades to this .”
Larry Altersitz has suggested that an airship could fill the role of the AC-130 gunships while mounting a far more formidable and varied armament. He's christened this vehicle a “SkyCastle.”
Chuck Myers: “An AC-130 at 250kts is no more immune to modern air defences compared to the hybrid airship at 60kts. You will find that orbiting speed (unless we are talking Mach 2) is nearly irrelevant when it comes to “susceptibility” (target quality/probability of being tracked/hit). It turns out that a big airplane is about ten times more likely to be detected and tracked by any sensor you have in mind than a hybrid aircraft as it is being proposed. Then we have the advantage of near unlimited countermeasures. The next consideration is probability/character of damage and the vehicle's response to damage. That's where airplanes fare so poorly and with disastrous outcome for the air crews. Badly damaged hybrids filled with helium might settle to earth in 20 or 30 minutes with little injury (if any) to the crews. If you might get shot down, which would you rather be in?”
CPT John Wilson: “Any airship rigged like an AC130 is a good deal. LONG loiter time, more ammo, basically a high altitude FA battery. It is less susceptible to damage because it takes several hits to knock down an airship and they tend to float down rather than crash-n-burn like HTA aircraft. It's not impervious, nothing is. You have to combine arms!!!!
According to an LTA source, the British Army staff tested airships and were so impressed with the results (i.e. not falling out of the sky or “popping”) that they are using them in N Ireland for observation platforms.
LTA airships are LOW pressure filled with non-flammable helium (He). Shooting holes in them only causes slow leaks. An adversary would have to cause catastrophic failure of the envelope to cause complete destruction in an uncontrollable crash. Internal, compartmentalized “gas cells” further contains collateral loss of He gas. It'll take a lot more than a bad guy and a Dhsk machine gun to bring one down.
The USN fought the German Wolfpacks in WWII with hundreds of airships. Not ONE convoy escorted by LTA anti-sub platforms EVER lost ONE ship!!!!!!!!!
Only one airship was lost to direct combat with a surfaced U-Boat. That was because the stooopid LT on board decided to “dive bomb” the boat (not what it was designed for).Chuck Myers: It was even worse. When he tried to release his ordnance, it failed to release and the U Boat shot him down ------- but they survived.
JW: This little history lesson brought to you by a few History Channel documentaries on the subject.
PW: The blimp lost was the K-74 on July 18, 1943. Its bomb rack jammed, preventing it from releasing its depth charges. The wartime US Blimp fleet numbered 130, escorted nearly 90,000 ships without ever losing any to submarines and accrued 5.5 million hours in the air in 55,900 flights.
JW: LTA lift is much cheaper than HTA lift. You can move twice the cargo at 2/3rd the cost. We have good weapons, we just can't get them to the fight.
Too slow is relative. Would you rather wait 2 weeks for a couple of ROROs to arrive from CONUS with heavy weapons or is 2-4 days from CONUS better (not to mention you're not tied to sea ports or air ports of debarkation....which makes you less predictable).
The projected cost of a CL160 is $100 mil. A C17 costs $180 mil. A CL160 can move 2 x M1A2s with UBL + 3 DOS. A C17 can only move ONE M1A2 with a UBL. A CL160 can move 4 x M2A3s with UBL + 2 DOS.....or 5 x Paladins.
Smaller ships provide an airborne weapons platform with an on station loiter time from HELL!!!
We would be FOOLS not to pursue the technology.
ULTA - Unmanned LTA with JSTARS/FLIR at Bde or even Bn level (tethered or not) is a cheap way to increase tactical level recon geometricly!
Ralph Zumbro: “Comment on SkyCastle. The station keeping propulsion could be electric/nuclear/solar, since it would hopefully be out of the jetstream altitudes. Result is that it could carry large capacitors for combat (theatre-size) lasers. Since any weapon with enough warhead size to damage it would be a missile, not a gun, the incoming threat would be slow enough to see and shoot down. This thing could be made damn near invulnerable.”
Another idea for airship use occurred to me while watching a documentary about smokejumpers. Why not use them as giant firetrucks? Even the 160 ton payload capacity of the CL160 could do alot to help firefighters control a wildfire. I wonder about thermal updrafts though. But if those aren't a problem our National forest Service could have oh call it the FC160, the biggest fire engine around.
Mr. Zumbro noted that airships could also be useful for mounting theater-level lasers. Wouldn't this be a good idea for missile defense over the US too? Combined with the fledgling interceptors, and some stratsats this would, it seems to me, be a much better defense system.
I addressed using an LTA as a firefighting platform above. I'd now like to share some ideas about how to improve firefighting abilities in wilderness/rural areas. From what I've read and seen on documentaries smokejumpers are still using the same basic equipment they had 30 or 40 years ago. Why not apply the airmech philosophy to them? ATACs would allow them to carry their heavy stuff like chainsaws easier, plus things like water, food etc...Also maybe some kind of fire suppressant, albeit not alot but I'm thinking some is better than none. I also see a BV-206 with some kind of firefighting pod on it. Filled with water or fire suppresant and fold out seats on the side to carry firefighters.
Since the 206 is both helo and air transportable it can be inserted nearly anywhere. The actual firefighting unit could be detached in place while the drive unit acts like a bulldozer or plow. Could it also be fireproofed as an emergency shelter for situations like storm king mountain?
A standardized helo, preferably able to carry a firefighting or supply pod, would enhance their abilities also. I've seen a few CH-54s on TV fighting fires. This bird is custom made for the job. A pod loaded with equipment and fold out seats on the side could insert a much more capable team. once again this pod could act as a fire shelter if something goes wrong.
PW: In many forested areas large helicopters such as the S-64/CH54 Skycrane are already present to provide lift for logging operations. It makes sense to have strategically located pods that could quickly convert these to water carriers or allow them to transport fire-fighters and their vehicles. Mi-26s are being used to control fires in southern Italy, and the proposed Very Heavy Lift Helicopter would be even more useful, both for logging and fire-fighting.
Also a better water plane force seems to be needed. A lot of the water bombers look to be converted WW2 bombers. And they seem to make single drops. To me, at least, there seems to be a need for a national force of C-130s or something similar that can apply massed fire suppression. Local or already possessed water bombers would probably stay around but this force would reinforce the worst fires, or be tasked in smaller numbers to augment locals. I'm not firm on the numbers but 20-30 would seem a good start. Add ten or so to transport smokejumpers and improved equipment, and some helos carrying helitaks(firefighters who rappell) and I think we could respond better to wilderness/rural fires.
PW: Using the C-130 as a water-bomber is an interesting idea (it's tempting to suggest SAC's B-52s as a strategic water dropping force). Like helicopters, flying boats/amphibians can refil from local sources of water. Size of the aircraft is a crucial factor: a large aircraft can carry more, but may not be able to scoop from smaller lakes. A squadron of aircraft such as the US-1 might be worth considering.Brady Hauth writes:
I have a couple comments on your LTA craft ideas from an engineering standpoint.
Density of helium is 0.1785 kg/m3, density of hydrogen is 0.0899 kg/m3, density of air is 1.275 kg/m3. So heating the helium will not help lift much. Hydrogen is flammable, but it was actually the (very!) flammable skin of the Hindenburg that caught on fire. (see http://www.clean-air.org/hindenberg.htm) Hydrogen needs oxygen to burn as everything does and it mixes poorly with air. It does not help lift much though as you see above. But it does have one advantage - it's much cheaper. Helium can be 15 cents per cubic meter. That adds up fast.
Hydrogen is far less. LTA craft, esp nuclear ones might prefer gunslings to cannons.
In fact, ships might too. A gunsling that fires a one ton projectile at 1 km/s would be less than 30 tons. It would still use a vacuum chamber. You would still need an engine, but that means that you don't have to carry propellant. And power is cheap when there's a fission reactor on it. It would be an expensive 30 tons, but it could fire as fast as the engine could get it back to speed.
PW: The theory that it was the skin of the Hindenburg that was the cause is an attractive one but others have cast some very valid arguments against it. If you watch the video clip of the crash it is obvious that the fire is burning through from under the skin, not along the skin. There seems to be good evidence that that a fault in the engines was the cause. A very strong smell of fuel was reported by a lad the ship passed over at Lakehurst, NJ.
I have my doubts that a nuclear airship would ever be let near a battlezone, or a population centre for that matter. The same sort of fears probably mean that a manned hydrogen airship is nearly as unlikely, even though the points you raise are very true.
The gunsling is an intriguing idea. One that fires a 90lb projectile would be equivalent to a high-velocity 155mm. Smaller projectiles could do the same anti-missile role that is often proposed for energy weapons and railguns.
BH: A gunsling for a 20 lb tungsten dart launched at 4 km/s would be under 2 tons. Faster than that and there are serious ablation problems and the gunsling starts getting heavy fast.
Ralph Zumbro's idea of heating the helium is to utilize heat that would otherwise go to waste. This has already been tried and proven in at least one design.
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