Fully filled with helium, the world’s largest aircraft has lifted off for the first time at its hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire.
Historically, it’s not even close to the massive sizes of older airships like the Hindenburg or the USS Akron and Macon, but at 302 feet long, 143 feet wide, and 85 feet tall, the Airlander is in fact the largest operating aircraft in the world today.
The Airlander was originally born of the U.S. Army as part of a $500 million surveillance vehicle project, and was being developed by company in Great Britain called Hybrid Air Vehicles. When the Army scrapped the plans in 2012, Hybrid Air Vehicles bought the rights to the hybrid airship with the intention of converting it over to cater to commercial passengers.
The Airlander is part airplane, part helium blimp. It’s propelled by four 350 horsepower V8 diesel engines that can get it up to 92 miles per hour, but it gets its lift from helium. A lot of helium.
Filled with helium
The Airlander requires no less than 1,340,000 cubic feet of helium to get its 44,100-pound body (plus a possible 22,000-pound payload) off the ground. That’s more than 4,600 of Zephyr’s large steel helium cylinders-worth of helium!
One of the interesting things about the Airlander is it has no internal structure. It maintains its bizarre shape from the pressure of the helium expanding against the unique Vectran™ fiber that makes up the hull.
Airlander stands apart
The helium airship/airplane does offer some unique features.
For one, it is quiet, with little pollution. It can carry 48 passengers plus a cargo load that even the largest airplanes cannot handle. It can be piloted for five straight days, or fly for two straight weeks if unmanned. While traditional blimps soar below 1,000 feet, the Airlander has a cruising altitude of 20,000 feet.
Halloween lift off
For the first time since being redesigned and repurposed for commercial use, the Airlander was completely filled with helium and floated inside of its hangar in Bedfordshire, England on October 31.
According to a post on the company’s Facebook page, the final steps are now to finish the installation of the four engines, fins, and the Mission Module, all of which are happening right now.
The Airlander helium airship is expected to take its first flight in the spring of 2016.