Five months ago, the world was paying some serious attention to Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander 10 – and not necessarily because of its combination of lighter-than-air and traditional aeronautical technology.

The buzz was more about the bulbous rear of the world’s longest aircraft, which some unkind folk on social media suggested resembled the curvature of Kim Kardashian’s bottom. Now this XXXL flying machine has finally taken off on its maiden voyage. Last week the aircraft left Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire and landed half an hour later.

The Airlander 10 was set to undertake its maiden flight in June. Permission for flight trials was granted in April after an extended period of ground testing. Currently an even bigger version of the craft capable of lifting 50 tons is in the pipeline.

Originally developed for the US military in a since scrapped joint programme with Northrop Grumman, the Airlander has already “flown”, though. A prototype flew back in 2012 and the current civilian version (significantly changed from the original) was floated in its hanger unpowered. In its most recent test late last year it was towed while aloft by four fork-lifts, each fitted with two-ton weights.

In addition to EU research funding of more than R40 million, the hybrid aircraft recently broke through the £1 million (R21 million) barrier on crowdfunding from more than 1 200 investors. Backers include, according to Britain’s Daily Mail, Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson, who is said to have invested around £250 000. HAV claims to be one of the few companies to have successfully raised more a million on an equity crowdfunding – twice.

HAV says the Airlander combines the best characteristics of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. Its hybrid design provides lift in three ways:
– Aerostatic lift (60 per cent of the total), thanks to helium – it’s basically a gigantic balloon.
– Aerodynamic lift (40 per cent of the total), generated by its wing-like body shape.
– Vectored thrust (25 per cent extra), via four diesel engines, used mostly during takeoff and landing.

Its flight characteristics should include the ability to hover like a helicopter and take off and land in small spaces. Though most of its lift coming from pressurised helium, up to 40 per-cent is provided by the body shape. Internal diaphragms required to support the hull shape allow for a some compartmentalisation, aiding its fail-safe nature. Multiple ballonets located fore and aft in each of the hulls provide pressure control. Landing is accomplished on profiled, retractable pneumatic tubes/skids on the underside of the two outer hulls. These allow multi-surface ground operation including amphibious capability.

The Airlander is said to be able to stay airborne for up to five days and even longer if used unmanned. The aircraft’s roles could include transportation for passengers and cargo, as well as surveillance. Not only would it be easy to land and take off in extreme environments, it is also designed to be fuel-efficient. Quoted cruising speed is a little more than 140 km/h and service ceiling is 20 000 feet.

Although by modern standards the Airlander 10 is huge – it’s 20 metres longer than the current leading super jumbo, the Airbus A380 – but perhaps surprisingly it is only one third the size of Germany’s 1930s Zeppelins. Speaking of which, in a nod to the historic origins of lighter-than-air craft, the Airlander has its home at Cardington, where the R101 – Britain’s attempt to take on the Germans – was produced.

Video credit: SciNews

This article is adapted from the original which appeared in the June 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics.