Floating on Air | Travel Research Online

Image
Image

Floating on Air

Good things are often hiding in plain sight. Sometimes it only takes a slight shift in the way we are looking at things to see benefits that were previously invisible to us. And sometimes ideas that were previously left by the wayside are shown to be worthy of reconsideration in a new context.

Decades ago I read a book called Design for the Real World by an industrial designer named Victor Papanek, the dean of the California Institute of the Arts. Papanek saw through standard conventions and came up with radically new ways to do things. He was also one of the early advocates of what we now call sustainability. He was always looking for ways to do things that were less wasteful, less polluting, and more benign for people and the environment. One of the ideas that struck me in his book was the idea of reviving the use of airships for transportation.

Airships, blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins are like giant balloons. A huge aluminum chamber is filled with a gas that is lighter than air, so it pulls the craft up into the sky with no propulsion required. It flies the way a carnival balloon flies because that’s essentially what it is, a giant aluminum helium balloon.

 

Photo courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd and Design Q

 

It’s an elegant design for transportation that requires little fuel. The aircraft does not need to be held in the air by the thrust of jet engines. If an engine were to fail, the blimp would just continue to float.

Airships were dropped after the Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey in 1937. The explosion of the Hindenburg was one of the most horrific disasters ever recorded on film, and it made airships virtually obsolete. Today you occasionally see a blimp advertising some brand, but beyond that, they are practically nonexistent. The airship became a discarded technology.

Papanek suggested that the way things have evolved, with carbon emissions in particular, the blimp offers advantages that deserve our attention. Papanek had personally experienced dirigibles before they passed out of favor.

“I was one of the few people who ever rode as a passenger on the Graf Zeppelin,” he wrote. “It was both a luxurious and thoroughly delightful experience which colored all my childhood memories of travel. These giant dirigibles consisted of a large passengers’ ‘gondola’ which housed the captain’s bridge, dining rooms, staterooms, and spacious corridors. The engines were housed in separate ‘nacelles’ that, like the passengers’ gondola, hung suspended from the gigantic aluminum structure. They were placed more than 100 feet aft of the passengers’ cabins. Both vibration and engine noises were almost nil, and the dirigible, being lighter than air, needed only a slight push to go in the desired direction. Unlike today’s jet, it did not rip through the air.”

What Papanek wrote about air travel in the ‘70s seems even more true today.

“In the late thirties, the zeppelins were phased out because of accidents involving the highly flammable hydrogen used,” he wrote. “But with our new technology, we may be able to bring them back; we now have gases that are less flammable or inert, thereby eliminating disaster. It would radically reduce pollution across the North Atlantic run, provide a safer and more comfortable trip, and merely add a few hours to the journey. It would be a perfect complement to today’s jets.”

Of course, an airship can’t match the speed of a jet. When you need to get to a long-haul destination in a short time you want a jet. But sometimes speed is not important, such as for sightseeing. Sightseeing from the air can be a breathtaking experience. But on a jet aircraft sightseeing is rarely even thought of. The airlines have instead evolved the flight experience along the lines of a flying restaurant or theater. It’s better for seating more people. The exterior of the plane is shut out of the consciousness of modern flight. Sometimes a pilot will mention something the plane is flying over, but airplanes aren’t designed for looking out the window. Only a minority of passengers have access to a window. If everyone tried to look out the window, it would create havoc.

That seems a waste because sightseeing from the air is a phenomenal experience. It’s not part of the value proposition of airlines today, but it could be. Now, decades after I read Papanek’s suggestion, I see that someone has taken a step in that direction. The country that brought you Volvo, IKEA, Spotify, and Lars Eric Lindblad, is bringing you a new kind of air travel. A Swedish company called OceanSky Cruises is reviving airship technology to create a phenomenal travel experience.

According to the company, OceanSky was founded in 2014 “after many years of research and investigation in the Lighter-Than-Air sector.” The new airship airline, OceanSky Cruises, was founded in 2018.

The first voyage is planned for 2024, taking off in Longyearbyen, in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, flying to the North Pole, and landing there for a six-hour stop.

The company is also working on an airship expedition over Africa, entitled Capricorn Voyage. It will cross Africa at the Tropic of Capricorn from Namibia, over Botswana and the Okavango Delta, and on to the Indian Ocean.

The voyages are called air cruises, and the comparison with ocean cruising is inescapable. An air cruise offers some of the same advantages: a luxurious ride during which you have your own cabin and can travel without the nuisance of having to unpack and pack at each new destination.

OceanSky’s airship is a combination of a travel and sightseeing vehicle and a floating hotel. It’s 100 meters long, about the length of an American football field. The chamber is filled with helium to make it float, and it’s designed aerodynamically to achieve lift when driven forward by four propellers. It doesn’t need an airstrip to take off or land, which is why it can land on the North Pole, or on virtually any flat surface, including the sea.

The interior is designed like a luxury hotel or cruise ship. The cabins have large panoramic windows. The bottom of the gondola has a special sightseeing room with glass on the sides and the bottom. The cabin is not pressurized, and seatbelts are not required.

The ship cruises at about 22 miles per hour, though it can move at up to 69 miles per hour. A jet, in contrast, flies at about 460 – 575 miles per hour. The ship will cruise at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. It can go as high as 10,000 feet or as low as 300 feet for close-up viewing. That puts you at about the height of the 25th floor of a high-rise building.

The flight from Svalbard to the North Pole and back lasts about 36 hours. That calculates to two nights onboard, though in the Arctic summer it’s daylight around the clock, so the concepts of day and night lose their meaning. The itinerary includes six hours landed at the North Pole. The company can also offer custom itineraries that accommodate their clients’ wishes to the extent of what is physically possible.

The accommodations are roughly what you would have on a luxury yacht, with a private cabin, bathroom, and wardrobe. The ship has eight double cabins, each with its own panoramic windows. It also has large common areas with even larger windows, a restaurant, and a lounge. Quality cuisine is part of the value proposition. There are seven crew members, including four pilots.

 

Photo courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd and Design Q

 

OceanSky confirmed to me that they believe they are the only company working toward building a new airship sector. “We will be the first airline of airships to offer customers trips based on the high-end experiential travel concept,” they said.

Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, the company’s CEO, told me that experiential travel is just the beginning. “The project is not about going to the North Pole,” he said. “The project is about bringing large-scale airships to commercial aviation: the North Pole and experiential travel is a go-to-market business model. We hope to later on fly cargo and even passenger transport at some point, on affordable price levels. However, the technology needs to be scaled up significantly for that to happen and probably go through several technology development stages.”

Lawaczeck is one of four founders. He has a background as a pilot, shipbuilder, and sailor. What drives all four founders, he said, are two things.

“One, airships can offer aviation truly sustainable air transports through very high energy efficiency (this is true climate impact). On top of that, they can easily become zero-emission. And two, airships can give humanity a form of travel that is much more comfortable in every sense. Not just on-board, having your own private suite, but also in terms of seamless travel. This is because airships have the ability to land basically anywhere, so your travel can be point-to-point. Also in cargo, this has a huge implication on operational efficiency.”

In addition, he says, “We want to build an industry with LTA [Lighter Than Air], not one or two airships, but hundreds.”

Hats off to OceanSky! It’s good to see that we as human beings can adapt to changing demands, and find new ways to move forward. We are not locked into mechanically repeating the same actions over and over, even when we know they are dangerous or destructive to our environment.

I would love to see this kind of travel really take off.


David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com, and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.

Share your thoughts on “Floating on Air”

You must be logged in to post a comment.