Yesterday evening, the world’s largest operational aircraft took flight in the UK. Called Airlander 10, it measures an impressive 92 meters (302 feet) long and is filled with helium, which doesn’t have the same flammability problems as hydrogen, which was the cause of the infamous Hindenburg disaster.
The company responsible for the mammoth vehicle is Hybrid Air Vehicles, which essentially bought the idea off the US Air Force after its funding was cut. The flight yesterday took place from Cardington airfield in Bedforshire, having been delayed from Sunday due to a technical problem. At the moment, the vehicle is only permitted to fly during the daytime. It flew for 20 minutes at a speed of up to 35 knots and a height of up to 150 meters (500 feet), performing a few gentle turns before landing.
"This is a revolutionary aircraft, it will do things other aircraft don't do, it will fly for a very long time and it will move like a giant helicopter doing remote access,” said CEO Steve McGlennan before take-off, reported the Bedfordshire News. “It is a very big day as history is being made here."
The ultimate goal for Airlander 10 isn’t quite clear yet, but there are a number of potential uses. It can theoretically stay aloft for weeks at a time, so its makers say it could be used for surveillance or disaster relief, or even as a luxury passenger cruise liner in the air. The company wants to build 10 of the vehicles by 2021, according to the BBC.
This particular vehicle was christened the Martha Gwyn, and cost about $30 million (£25 million) to build. It’s described as a hybrid vehicle, using four propellers to move itself, while also having fins at the back. Its hull is made of super-strength fabric to hold in the million cubic feet of helium, and it has a top speed of about 160 kilometers per hour (100 miles per hour).
Airships, of course, have been largely out of our skies since the mid-20th century. But there seems to be hope that the Airlander 10 could spawn a new era of floating ships, with plans even for a bigger version called the Airlander 50. This current vehicle will undergo more testing, totaling 200 hours of flight time, to ensure that it all works before that new age dawns.