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The Case for a Conservative Policy on Airships

Picture_4 Nicholas J. Rogers runs Rogers Airship Company, a business specialising in operating indoor airships for advertising purposes, and is a Conservative candidate for Lambeth Borough Council.

There was a time when the airship was seen by the world as the natural and undisputed future of transcontinental travel. The Zeppelin Company in Germany led the field in the development of airship technology, building a succession of successful, ocean-hopping rigid airships such as the famous Graf Zeppelin.

These aircraft were operated as a means of transporting passengers efficiently over long distances – a capability not offered by the aeroplanes of the era. The received wisdom was that over short distances, the aeroplane would suffice but that for journeys between continents the only way to travel was by airship – quicker and cheaper than ocean liners, and just as luxurious.

We all know how the airship dream of the 1920s and 30s ended – the horrific pictures of the Hindenburg disaster, caused by hydrogen lifting gas, became photographic icons of the 20th Century. Since that time, the airship has struggled to regain any sort of prominence and their use has been relegated to that of flying billboard or aerial sightseeing platform.

The fall of the airship is one of the only incidences in mankind’s history where a highly-developed technology has been expunged without anything taking its place (Concorde is another example), for although the aeroplane appears to be the master of the skies, there are many tasks which airships can perform that simply cannot be done by other aircraft.

This point is important – the modern airship would complement, not compete with, existing forms of aerial transport and aviation policy should recognise the capabilities of aeroplanes, helicopters and airships.

There are several roles which modern airships could perform.

Given that the lifting power of an airship can be quite formidable, they are ideally suited to moving large, indivisible loads over long distances, such as nuclear reactors and aeroplane wings. Currently, such goods have to be transported overland by lorry, offloaded and put on a cargo ship, then put back on another lorry at the other side of the water. Airships can provide A to B transportation.

Unmanned airships have the capability to loiter high up in the stratosphere acting as communications platforms – potentially doing away with the need for divisive, unsightly mobile phone masts which have been responsible for so many planning disputes, and dispensing with the need for so many satellite launches.

Airships are ideal disaster relief vehicles. Every time I see images on television of tragic natural disasters such as the New Orleans floods or the 2004 tsunami, my heart just breaks because the poor unfortunate victims of such disasters are, almost without fail, kept waiting for vital aid for far longer than they should be. This is because the devastated local infrastructure is rarely able to cope with large-scale relief efforts so soon after a large disaster. A large modern airship would need little or no infrastructure, and would be able to transport far greater quantities of aid than aeroplanes or helicopters, in far less time.

A further use for the modern airship is as a leisure craft complementing the booming cruise industry, forecast to grow by 140% over the next ten years. Conditions on a large modern airship would be far more comparable to those on an ocean liner than those on an aeroplane, and passengers could voyage in comfort over the great landmarks of the world.

In this environmentally-conscious age, it is comforting to note that the airship is one of the greenest forms of transport. Indeed, during a week of operations, a Skyship 600 (a modern ‘blimp’) consumes less fuel than a 767 uses to simply move away from its gate to the runway. Airships do not require mile after mile of concrete runway and can operate from a suitably large field, often with little permanent infrastructure. They produce little noise, and filled with non-flammable helium gas are possibly the safest way to travel.

Thus far, however, successive UK governments have had a negative attitude towards airship development with no acknowledgement of the potential role they could fill in British transport strategy. Labour has done nothing, as ever.

An incoming Conservative government needs to recognise the role that airships could play in 21st Century transport. Whilst I am not advocating government as the creator of markets, I do think that more needs to be done to encourage the development of airship technology to the point where they can begin to make a meaningful contribution to our country’s economy.


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