Airlander 10: World's Largest Aircraft

On this expedition, you will take a tour of Airlander 10, the world’s largest aircraft.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Twig World, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Hybrid Air Vehicles: Airlander 10

Welcome to Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), the makers of Airlander 10, the world’s largest aircraft. Airlander 10 looks like an old-fashioned (albeit huge) airship, but it combines lighter-than-air technology with modern aeronautical technology to form an innovative kind of aircraft.

Airlander 10 can also fly for up to 5 days at a time and has a much lower carbon footprint than other types of air transport. Let’s see how it works!

Measurements

Airlander 10 is 92 metres long and 43.5 metres wide, or about as large as a football pitch. It can carry 10 tonnes of passengers or cargo – about half of Airlander 10’s total mass.

Helium by Twig World

Helium

The hull of Airlander 10 is filled with helium – a very light, inert gas, supplied in large cylinders. The very first airships were filled with hydrogen, which is cheaper than helium but dangerously flammable.

Materials

Airlander 10’s hull is constructed from advanced materials: vectran (which provides strength); mylar (which prevents helium loss); and tedlar (which forms a protective coating). The combination of these materials was designed specially for Airlander 10. 

How Does Airlander 10 Fly?

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) was founded in 2007 as a manufacturer of hybrid airships. The airships are described as hybrid because they combine features of traditional airships (which use lighter-than-air gases to create lift) and ...

... aeroplanes (which generate lift because of their aerodynamic shapes). All aircraft need to generate lift (upward-acting force) to be able to fly.

Lighter Than Air

Around 60% of Airlander 10’s lift is because it is lighter than air – it floats due to its helium-filled hull. Traditional airships gain close to 100% of their lift from being lighter than air.

Aerodynamic Lift

As a hybrid airship, Airlander 10 gets up to 40% of its lift aerodynamically as it moves forward, because its hull is wing shaped. Close to 100% of the lift on a typical aeroplane is produced by aerodynamic lift. 

Thrust Lift

Airlander 10’s engines can be rotated (“vectored” means to be directed), to provide an additional 25% of lift upwards or downwards. This is useful during landing, take-off or hovering manoeuvres. 

Engines

Airlander 10 is powered by 4 Thielert Centurion 4-litre, turbocharged V8 diesel engines, each providing 325 horsepower. There are 2 engines at each end of the hull. 

These propel the aircraft forward and allow pilots to control the direction of movement – otherwise, as in a hot-air balloon, they would be largely reliant on wind. The engines can be directed upwards or downwards, for take-off/landing operations.

In Flight

Powered by the thrust of its engines, Airlander 10 can fly at speeds of up to 80 knots (148kph), enabling it to outrun bad weather. It is capable of flying at altitudes of 16,000 feet (4880 metres).

Safety

Airlander 10’s hybrid design gives it safety benefits over other aircraft. It could fly perfectly well using just 1 of its 4 engines. If all 4 failed (which is highly unlikely), it would still be able to glide or float.

Loading/Unloading

This is a “scissor” lift – used to load and unload cargo. A crane, winch or ramp can also be used, depending on the kind of cargo. Airlander 10 comes with inbuilt winches to enable cargo movement in remote locations.

Landing System

One of the cleverest aspects of Airlander 10’s design is its potential to land on any nearly flat surface. It will be able to do this because of its 2 pneumatic skids – inflatable landing gear that will work like giant cushions, protecting the aircraft from the ground. 

It will be possible to deflate them during flight to enhance Airlander 10’s aerodynamic shape.

All-Terrain Landings

Its skids mean that Airlander 10 can operate like a hovercraft, taking off from and landing on any terrain, including water, ice and snow. It doesn’t need pre-built infrastructure (such as an airport) to make a landing.

Uses

The ability to land anywhere makes Airlander 10 ideal for many purposes: disaster recovery; delivering to remote areas; surveillance; and tourism. It could carry supplies to the top of a mountain or take people over Antarctic icescapes.

Reinforced Layer

The skids have no internal structure – they are simply large inflatable tubes. The bottom of each is covered in an abrasion-resistant, reinforced layer. This can be replaced if damaged, like changing a shoe.

Airlander Front

Rather than having a circular cross-section like a traditional airship, Airlander 10 is a flattened ellipsis resembling two airships stuck together. Its unusual shape actually functions like a wing, contributing to the generation of aerodynamic lift as air flows around it. 

Flight Deck

The flight deck – sometimes called the cockpit – is where the pilot sits, alongside an observer (there will be seats for 2 pilots in the production version of Airlander 10). Floor-to-ceiling windows provide excellent visibility.

Facing the Weather

Airlander 10 is able to take off/land in winds of up to 35 knots (65kph). Although it features radar to avoid extreme weather, there is a copper Faraday cage built into the hull that prevents lightning affecting the aircraft.

Mission Module

Along the middle of the hull’s underside runs the mission module (also known as the cabin), with compartments for payload (passengers and cargo), fuel tanks and communication modules – via which Airlander 10 might one day be able to be flown remotely.

The Hangar

This is the base, in Cardington, England, from where Airlander takes off on test flights. Every aircraft must go through multiple test-flight stages in order to prove its airworthiness. At each stage, it is permitted to fly further and for longer.  

During an otherwise successful flight in 2016, Airlander 10 did have a heavy landing that was reported in the media. However, no one was hurt in the landing, and testing continues.  

Cardington Airport Sheds

Airlander 10 is stored and worked on in these sheds, originally built in the early 20th century, specifically for airship construction. At the time, these were the biggest sheds in Britain. 

Many Purposes

The sheds have been used for many purposes over the years, from film production to model-aircraft flying. They returned to their originally intended use in 2013, when Hybrid Air Vehicles established its base here. 

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