The first age of airships died with the 36 people who perished in 1937's Hindenburg disaster. More than 70 years later an Alabama-based company plans to launch the world's largest inflatable craft. Is the age of airships returning?
What does it take to be called the world's largest inflatable craft? E-GreenTechnologies' Bullet 580 is a 72m long craft with a 20m diameter, capable of lifting 907kg 6096m in the air.
That's nothing compared to the Hindenburg, of course, but then that 245m long monstrosity wasn't technically an inflatable craft, with a frame built of duralumin.
It also wasn't very safe, as the world tragically discovered on May 6, 1937, when the craft went up in flames. Early airships were powered by hydrogen, a more affordable gas than helium at the time. The cost savings wasn't worth the loss of lives caused by aircraft filled with flammable gas, so the age of the airship came to a close abruptly on that horrible day.
It's a bright new day now, however, especially for E-Green Technologies chief executive Mike Lawson. Lawson's a firm believer that airships have a future in the 21st century. In 2009 his company acquired leading airship research and development company 21st Century Airships. Since then the company has built and flown 14 prototypes, leading up to the Bullet, its first commercial vehicle.
Seven helium-filled bags provide lift for the bullet, with an inner hull filled with ambient air to deal with changing atmospheric pressure at different altitudes.
The outer envelope of the balloon is crafted from a type of Kevlar, one-sixteenth of an inch thick, yet 10 times stronger than steel, so stray birds and bullets shouldn't be a problem. Even if the Bullet does spring a leak, a serious crash isn't something Lawson is worried about.
Mr. Lawson, said: 'If you hit a hard landing, the airship is just going to kind of bounce.'
So the Bullet is safe and strong, but is it ecologically friendly?
Most definitely. The Bullet runs on algae fuel, safe enough to drink. The algae absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and when it's burned it releases that same carbon dioxide. It even has a Water Condensate Recovery System, which keeps the aircraft from needing constant helium refills.
Capable of both manned and unmanned flight, the Bullet can be used for everything from sightseeing to meteorological studies to spying. The ability to hover over areas for weeks at a time makes it the perfect mobile airborne observation platform, staying in the sky longer that any plane or helicopter could, while making a great deal less noise to boot.
Lawson's belief in the future of airships looks to be panning out. The Bullet already has its first mission lined up, a joint project between NASA and Old Dominion University to measure the moisture content in soil. Says E-Green's chief executive:
Airships have undergone surprisingly little evolution throughout their more than 150-year history, and this is what makes our E-Green proprietary designs so desirable to government and commercial customers.".
The Bullet currently sits, fully inflated, inside the Garret Coliseum in Alabama, awaiting its first test flights, scheduled for this summer. If all goes well, E-Green plans to create a fleet of the $US8 million airships created, ready to rent out at a fee of $US250-$US800,000 a month.
With a max speed of 129km/h, the Bullet isn't exactly the sort of airship we're used to seeing in Square Enix video games, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.