Student View
Article

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: Lockheed’s hybrid airship uses buoyancy and aerodynamic lift to fly.

LOCKHEED MARTIN

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS.1C

CCSS: Writing Standards: 1

TEKS: 6.12E, 7.11C, 8.11C, B.5D

Airships Take Off

People once thought floating aircraft would be the future of flight. Could that still be true?  

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How is an aircraft’s design related to its purpose?

Today, airplanes and helicopters rule the skies. But that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, people thought floating, gas-filled airships would be the flying machines of the future. 

Henri Giffard of France invented the airship in 1852—more than 50 years before the Wright brothers built and flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But when airplanes began taking off, airships quickly fell out of favor. 

Not everyone thinks the floating vehicles are just a side-note in aviation history. In fact, leading engineers say fleets of airships could take to the skies once again. They believe the cleaner, cheaper aircraft could revolutionize how cargo is shipped around the world. 

Today, airplanes and helicopters rule the skies. But that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, people thought floating airships would be the flying machines of the future.

Henri Giffard of France invented the airship in 1852. That was more than 50 years before the Wright brothers built and flew the first airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But when airplanes began taking off, airships quickly fell out of favor.

It may seem that the floating vehicles are just a side-note in the history of flight. But not everyone thinks so. Leading engineers say fleets of airships could take off once again. They believe the cleaner, cheaper aircraft could change how cargo is shipped around the world.

LIGHTER THAN AIR

Airships operate on one basic principle—buoyancy. Buoyancy is the tendency of an object to float in a fluid (a liquid or a gas). The upward force of buoyancy is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced, or moved aside, by an object. In order to float, an object must weigh less than the liquid or gas it pushes aside. For airships, that means being lighter than air. 

Airships are filled with lighter-than-air gases such as helium (He) and hydrogen (H). These gases are less dense than the nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), and other gases that make up Earth’s atmosphere. With enough helium or hydrogen, you can make almost anything fly.

Airships run on one basic idea—buoyancy. That’s the tendency of an object to float in a fluid (a liquid or a gas). The object displaces, or moves aside, some of the fluid. The upward force of buoyancy equals the weight of the fluid that is displaced. The object will float only if it weighs less than the liquid or gas it pushes aside.

For airships, that means being lighter than air. Airships are filled with gases such as helium (He) and hydrogen (H). These gases are less dense than those in Earth’s atmosphere, like nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O). This makes airships lighter than air. You could make almost anything fly with enough helium or hydrogen.

In the early 20th century, airships were used for exploration, transportation, and even warfare. Quiet as a cloud, they could spy on enemies and drop bombs from afar. Then in 1937, a hydrogen-filled airship named the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey (see Fiery Disaster). The tragedy helped end the age of airships. It would be decades before a new generation of inventors once more dreamed of floating in the sky.

Airships were used for exploration and transportation in the early 20th century. They were even used for warfare. That’s because airships were as quiet as a cloud. They could spy on enemies and drop bombs from far away. Then in 1937, tragedy struck. A hydrogen-filled airship named the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey (see Fiery Disaster). This helped end the age of airships. They were forgotten for decades, until a new generation of inventors dreamed of floating in the sky.

CARGO CARRIERS 

If fleets of airships someday sail through the clouds, it’s most likely that they will be carrying cargo—not people. But that’s not because airships are dangerous. Today’s airships use helium, which, unlike hydrogen, isn’t flammable. So there’s little risk of another Hindenburg disaster happening again. It’s the design of airships that makes them uniquely suited for carrying large amounts of cargo. They can deliver to hard-to-reach places by taking off and landing almost anywhere—no runway required.

Airships also have a high lift-to-drag ratio. This ratio is an aircraft’s lift (the upward force caused by air flowing around an object), divided by its drag (the slowing force of air pushing against the aircraft as it moves). The higher an aircraft’s lift-to-drag ratio, the more easily it can get off the ground and the less fuel it uses. This means airships can be cheaper to fly and create less pollution than traditional aircraft.  

Fleets of airships may someday sail through the clouds. But they’ll probably carry cargo, not people. That’s not because airships are dangerous. Today’s airships use helium. This gas isn’t flammable like hydrogen. So there’s little risk of another Hindenburg disaster happening again. It’s the design of airships that makes them perfect for carrying large amounts of cargo. They can deliver to hard-to-reach places by taking off and landing almost anywhere, because they don’t need a runway.

Airships also have a high lift-to-drag ratio. An aircraft’s lift is the upward force caused by air flowing around it. Drag is the slowing force of air pushing against the aircraft as it moves. Divide lift by drag to get the ratio. If the lift-to-drag ratio is higher, the aircraft can get off the ground more easily. It also uses less fuel. This means airships can be cheaper to fly and create less pollution than traditional aircraft.

AEROSCRAFT

HEAVY LIFTER: An airship could someday carry cargo in the belly of its hull and deliver payloads without landing.

“In our modern world, we’ve moved toward greener and more efficient technology, and this technology fits that perfectly,” says Bob Boyd, who works in the aerospace industry. “It’s a more efficient way to fly.”

“In our modern world, we’ve moved toward greener and more efficient technology, and this technology fits that perfectly,” says Bob Boyd. He works in the aerospace industry. “It’s a more efficient way to fly.”

THE FUTURE OF FLIGHT?

Boyd works at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California, where many advanced aircraft designs are developed. He and his team are building a fleet of hybrid airships. These airships are a cross between a blimp and a plane. About 80 percent of their flying ability comes from buoyancy. The other 20 percent comes from the ships’ aerodynamic shape. Like airplanes, hybrid airships have wings that manipulate airflow to create an upward force. The result is a cargo airship that is about five times more efficient than a plane, says Boyd.  

Boyd works at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, California. Advanced aircraft designs are developed there. He and his team are building hybrid airships. These airships are a cross between a blimp and a plane. About 80 percent of their flying ability comes from buoyancy. The rest comes from the ships’ aerodynamic shape. Hybrid airships have wings that work like the ones on airplanes. They change the airflow to create an upward force. The result is a cargo airship that’s about five times more efficient than a plane, says Boyd.  

LOCKHEED MARTIN

HANDY SPIDER: This autonomous robot crawls along Lockheed’s hybrid airship to find and patch leaks.

Right now, Lockheed is designing, building, and testing hybrid airships that are the size of a football field and can carry 22 tons of cargo—far less than what many planes can carry. Eventually, the company wants to build an airship that can carry 500 tons. An airship of that size could fill a large sports stadium.

Engineer Igor Pasternak also dreams of a future filled with airships. Pasternak immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine at the age of 29. Soon after, he founded a company called Worldwide Aeros based in Montebello, California, and began making blimps. While his first models were used mainly for advertising and surveillance, he’s now focused on building cargo-carrying airships.  

Right now, Lockheed is designing, building, and testing hybrid airships that are the size of a football field. These blimps can carry 22 tons of cargo. That’s far less than many planes can carry. Someday the company wants to build an airship that can carry 500 tons. An airship that size could fill a large sports stadium.

Engineer Igor Pasternak also dreams of a future filled with airships. Pasternak moved to the U.S. from Ukraine at the age of 29. He founded a company called Worldwide Aeros based in Montebello, California. There, he began making blimps. His first models were used mostly for advertising and surveillance. But now he’s focused on building airships that carry cargo.  

AEROSCRAFT

DRAGON BONES: Workers in California assemble the aluminum and carbon fiber frame of the prototype airship Dragon Dream.

In 2013, Pasternak built and successfully flew the largest airship made in the U.S. since the Hindenburg disaster. The prototype was called the Dragon Dream, and it could someday carry 66 tons of cargo (see Future Flyer). Since then, he has continued to pursue a world in which airships—not planes—rule the skies. Pasternak believes that within 5 to 10 years, airships will deliver huge amounts of cargo around the globe—even to the most remote places on the planet. 

Pasternak first fell in love with airships more than 40 years ago, when he was just 12 years old. “I read an article in a kids’ magazine about airships that could move vast amounts of cargo anywhere you like,” he says. “I knew these airships could change the world. Everything started from a simple wish—to build something and fly.” 

Pasternak built and successfully flew a new blimp in 2013.  It was the largest airship made in the U.S. since the Hindenburg disaster. The first model was called the Dragon Dream. Someday, it could carry 66 tons of cargo (see Future Flyer). Since then, Pasternak has continued to work toward a world in which airships—not planes—rule the skies. He believes that we’ll see a big change within 5 to 10 years. Airships will deliver huge amounts of cargo around the globe. They’ll even reach the most-remote places.

Pasternak first fell in love with airships when he was just 12 years old. That was more than 40 years ago. “I read an article in a kids’ magazine about airships that could move vast amounts of cargo anywhere you like,” he says. “I knew these airships could change the world. Everything started from a simple wish—to build something and fly.”

CORE QUESTION: Why do some people think airships would be better than airplanes for carrying cargo? Cite evidence from the text.

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)