Can airships make a comeback?

Rarely can one event kill off an entire industry, but that’s exactly what happened to airship travel when the LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into flames above New Jersey in 1937.  

Seventy-six years later, a new line of blimp-trepreneurs are hoping the stigma has worn off.   

What happened: Pathfinder 1 — a prototype electric airship from the Sergey Brin-backed startup LTA Research — began flight testing yesterday. Clocking in at 407 feet long, it’s the largest aircraft in the world and the biggest one to take to the skies since the 1930s. 

  • For reference, that’s a little longer than three Boeing 737s, though it pales in comparison to the massive Hindenburg-class airships, which were 800 feet long.

Why it matters: Pathfinder could reignite society’s long-lost love of airships. Unlike the Hindenburg, it uses non-flammable helium and boasts futuristic materials and tech, like a carbon-fibre reinforced structure, lightweight Tedlar skin, and lidar laser monitoring systems.

  • A hybrid propulsion system powered by diesel generators and batteries allows for takeoff and landing, with plans to eventually use carbon-neutral hydrogen fuel cells
  • LTA also wants to use its airships for humanitarian aid and disaster relief, as they can store lots of cargo and reach areas where planes and boats have difficulty accessing.

Zoom out: UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles plans to offer commercial airship flights by 2026, while France’s Flying Whales plans to launch cargo flights by 2027. In Canada, Manitoba’s BASI is developing airships to deliver packages to remote cold-weather communities.—QH