Just before twilight on Wednesday at Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire, England, a giant airship took a buzzy first flight. It was a brief victory lap for the largest aircraft on the planet. The aircraft’s maiden voyage lasted for a half an hour as the jumbo ship — at 302 feet in length, that’s a fifth longer than the longest jet — circled the airfield.
The dirigible moved like a slow queenly wave, somewhat undercut by the fact the ship looks like, well, a butt.
According to the brochure, the eight-story-tall airship is of a line called the Airlander 10. This specific craft was christened the Martha Gwyn, named after the wife of Philip Gwyn, chairman of the airship manufacturing company Hybrid Air Vehicle. But, when viewed from the front, the twin helium-filled lobes bear more than a passing resemblance to a tuchus. And so it has come to pass that the Brits, who sadly failed to name a $300 million oceanic research vessel Boaty McBoatface, have also dubbed the world’s largest aircraft the “flying bum.”
Spectator Donna Seymour called the nickname “quite appropriate,” as she told the Belfast Telegraph. Such a moniker did not temper her enthusiasm. “It was beautiful,” she said. “It’s just so unusual.”
Despite its gluteal countenance, the $40 million Airlander 10 is an impressive bit of aeronautical engineering. The Airlander is designed to incorporate the best parts of an airplane, a helicopter and a dirigible into one machine.
It uses less fuel than a cargo plane and does not require much space to lift off. “Think of a big helicopter, a really giant helicopter,” said Hybrid Air Vehicle chief executive Stephen McGlennan to Sky News. The company envisions aerial safaris and other passenger flights aboard the Airlander, it told Live Science. Or Airlanders could be patrol ships, search and rescue vehicles, or giant, floating Wi-Fi hotspots.
“This can do the same thing that a helicopter can do — that’s to say, provide air transportation for people and goods without the need for a runway,” McGlennan said. “But this thing can take more over longer distances, it’s cheaper and it’s greener.”
Hybrid Air Vehicle says that the airship can stay in the air for five days at a go, if filled with people. Unmanned, it can remain airborne for three times as long. Such long flights are the legacy of dirigibles, which include both zeppelins (rigid and filled with lighter-than-air gas) and blimps (also filled with gas but are, well, limp).
With plane-like wings and rotatable engines, the Airlander can overcome a problem that many blimps face: how to land. To lift heavy cargo loads, blimps need to be buoyant. But make them too buoyant and they will not touch the ground when you want them to. (A less practical dirigible solution is to simply never have them land, which is supposedly why the Empire State Building has a spire designed as a zeppelin tethering point.)
The chimeric design was created by Hybrid Air Vehicle with the help of Northrop Grumman. In fact, the Airlander 10 is a later incarnation of what was once known as the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, a spy aircraft developed by the United States military in 2013. The program was scrapped, however, before the LEMV made it to Afghanistan.
Though the Airlander 10 is a technological achievement, that does not necessarily translate to economic success. “Airships and hybrids have still got a credibility gap to cover,” Chris Pocock, defense editor of aviation magazine AIN, told the Associated Press.
“The most important remaining barrier to a cargo airship industry is the lack of business confidence,” Barry Prentice, a business professor at the University of Manitoba, argued in a 2014 paper, as The Washington Post previously noted.
Still, airships have struggled to make good on revolutionary promises, the earliest of which date back to 1785, when two inventors crossed the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon. Over the following century and a half, airship designs slowly improved. Just prior to World War II, luxury travel by zeppelin had become something of a fledgling industry. But when the Hindenburg erupted in flames in 1937, killing 36, the era of airships came to an sudden halt.
Unlike the hydrogen that filled the Hindenburg, the Airlander 10 is filled with helium, which will not catch on fire. One of the biggest issues with the nonflammable gas is a limited supply, though recent discoveries of new helium pockets have deflated dire warnings. With its massive balloons inflated, the Airlander can lift 22,050 pounds of cargo up to 16,000 feet. Do not expect the flying bum to break any speed records, however. The ship maxes out at 90 mph, a fraction of the 650-mph cruising speed of a Boeing 747.
The Airlander would not have achieved liftoff without support from an eclectic mix of sources, including a $320,000 investment from Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden who is also a pilot.
“Being a rock person, I could put it up my nose, or buy a million Rolls Royces and drive them into swimming pools, or I could do something useful,” Dickinson told the Guardian. “There are very few times in your life when you’re going to be part of something big.”
The Airlander 10 could give way to something even bigger. Should the Airlander 10 prove profitable, a flying bum of Kardashian proportions is on the horizon — the Airlander 50. Set to launch in the in 2020s, the Airlander 50 would hold five times more cargo than the airship that hovered over Bedfordshire Wednesday.