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Plonk, suck, squeeze ... or blow

Unfortunately there's a snag. An Airlander/HAV 366 which plonks down 50 tonnes will unavoidably become seriously positively buoyant as it does so, and will surge uncontrollably upwards. If the captain doesn't vent off a lot of helium himself, automatic dump valves will do it for him when the ship soars up through its pressure ceiling.

A ship which has to throw away large amounts of its expensive helium every time it delivers a cargo isn't much use. So in fact, as it stands, an Airlander can only plonk things in locations where it can easily take on a similar weight of ballast. This probably means a large quantity of water - and if the water is found in the form of a large river or the sea, this in turn probably means it would be simpler to get there by boat. If the water comes out of a tap, it would be simpler to get there by road - taps are not usually found away from other infrastructure.

There are some possible technical solutions to the buoyancy issue. A hover-skirt undercarriage, as seen on the well-known Lockheed P-791 demonstrator, could be switched to suck instead of blow to help hold the ship down - or it could on a suitable surface, anyway. The HAV 366 design includes this feature. Unfortunately, once the ship took off after using that strategy, it might struggle ever to land again.

Other possibilities include the use of condensers to harvest water ballast from the engine exhaust, or the plan of compressing the ship's helium to the point where it becomes heavier than air - as the Aeroscraft "Pelican" ship is supposed to do. But the engineers of HAV/Airlander don't appear to favour these plans.

All in all, then, there's reason to doubt that future 366-style Airlanders will really be able to plonk as well Dickinson suggests. Even if they can, it remains unproven that the wilderness plonking market really exists.

Perhaps the existing ship, already paid for courtesy of the US Army, can prove the concept. But it doesn't even have hover-skirts, not having been designed for cargo operations: it sets down on a pair of inflated bumpers.

We here on the Reg airship desk are extremely chuffed at the thought that a big, serious airship may soon be flying from the UK. We hope that HAV has enough cash to actually get this done, or that it can raise that money: we note that the company is seeking funds both from the markets and from ordinary enthusiasts.

We hope that the plonk market exists, or some other market such as slow luxury air travel. We personally would far rather cough up for a berth on an Airlander liner than one on a cruise ship or the Orient Express.

But after years covering the airship beat and pretty much nothing but disappointments to show for it, we'd have to say we aren't totally convinced any of those things will happen. ®

*Yes, Army, not Air Force or Navy. All three main US services have had a variety of airship projects on the go recently, in much the same way that all three have aeroplanes, helicopters and space forces.

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