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The Rigid Airship

By Ian Alexander, Rigid Airship Design N.V., 's-Graveland.

In 1969 two Americans landed on the moon and the world applauded. From Jules Verne onwards children (and more than a few adults!) had devoured space travel adventure stories. Every boy alive had decided at one point or other in his childhood that he was going to be a spaceman, and now, here were two real spacemen walking on the surface of the moon. Space travel's time seemed to have come. But had it? It has been a long time since anyone walked on the moon. Two generations earlier a similar leap from dreams to reality had occurred. On the 2nd July 1900, three years before the Wright brothers 'Flyer' rose above the sand at Kitty Hawk, an old man and some friends climbed into the control room of a metal framed aircraft twice as large as a modern 747. The old man paused only to take his cap off and say a short prayer, then the aircraft took off and circled for eighteen minutes above an astonished crowd on the shores of the Bodensee in Southern Germany. Count Zeppelin's time seemed to have come, for, although his machine required some refinements, within a few years the Kaiser had named him as "The greatest German of the twentieth century".

For the next forty years Rigid Airships remained the most impressive aircraft in the sky. Even to this day the old men and women who saw a Rigid Airship fly overhead when they were children will tell you just where they were standing and just what the weather was like when they saw this most impressive of sights. But, at the end of the nineteen thirties, after a series of disasters in Britain, France and America, the last three Zeppelins in existence were broken up for scrap, and since then we have seen them no more in our skies.

So why on earth should anyone believe, nearly sixty years after the last Zeppelin was scrapped, that the Rigid Airship's time has now come? Let me begin by giving some examples what Rigid Airship travel was like. A passenger Zeppelin, bound for New York in 1936, was a little delayed in leaving Friedrichshafen in Germany. Two elderly passengers had gone to their cabin, to unpack and change in preparation for departure. An hour or two later one of them was becoming a little annoyed by the lack of action, and went along to the steward's office to enquire when the airship was likely to make a start. The steward smiled, and pointed out that the airship had in fact taken off ninety minutes earlier, and was now flying over the English Channel. (This is not an experience which a passenger is likely to have to-day, even in the most quiet and best managed aeroplane.)

Or consider this. There has been only one aircraft in history on which the Vatican has permitted Mass to be said during flight. Why? Because the Pope's representative has only once been satisfied that was no danger of the sacramental wine spilling. Where was this Mass said? In a 1930's Rigid Airship flying across the North Atlantic, one of the most turbulent parts of the atmosphere.

What happens if an airship's engines stop in flight? It stays in the air. (The best example of this was in 1929, when the on-board mechanic of the ‘Graf Zeppelin’ undertook some unauthorized ‘modifications’ to four out of that airship's five engines. Over the Atlantic these four engines broke down, so the airship flew backwards for four hundred miles and landed safely in France.)

Rigid Airships make very little noise. Their large, slow turning propellers do not even reach the minimum line on the aircraft noise regulations graph. They can pass their exhaust gases through condensers and pipe the resulting water into on-board tanks, so that the airship does not become too light from using fuel on long flights. This means an enormous reduction in pollution. In any case, airship motors are minute by aeroplane standards, since the engines of an airship do not have to fight gravity.

Airports have begun to deny access to freight aeroplanes during the hours of darkness. The reasons are noise and pollution. As we have seen, the Rigid Airship produces neither.

But the principal reason why I believe that the Rigid Airship's time has finally come is the worldwide and plentiful availability of helium as the lifting gas. Everyone has seen the horrific photographs and film of the ‘Hindenburg’ disaster (although not everyone is aware that two thirds of those on board survived!) and most people feel that it seems obvious that airships are dangerous. The operators of the ‘Hindenburg’ were forced to use inflammable hydrogen with the obvious risks which this entailed. At the time the USA held the world monopoly on helium, and would not permit its export. Today we have helium production plants in several countries providing a lifting gas which will not burn, will combine with no other gas, and can actually be used to put out fires.

It is fair however, to point out that there were reasons other than the need to fly on hydrogen which made Count Zeppelin a little premature in introducing the Rigid Airship a century ago. Aerodynamics was not a developed science in 1900, and many early rigid airships were built without any accurate consideration of aerodynamic forces. Pilot employment was by trial and error rather than after appropriate training. Dissemination of weather forecasting was non existent. Although they caused several pre-war airships to fail, none of these factors apply today. Airworthiness authorities must confirm the strength and safety of all commercial aircraft before they are permitted to fly. Pilots can fly commercial aircraft only after approved and extensive training. Weather satellites provide minute by minute details of weather worldwide. The regulations which apply to modern commercial aeroplanes will be applied by the authorities to commercial Rigid Airships. (And then some!) By definition the multi-engined, helium filled Rigid Airship will be the safest aircraft in the sky.

To day we are aware of the fragility of our environment. We are sensitive to noise and pollution. We prefer sustainable technology and will shortly have once more a choice. A choice between flying in an aeroplane which requires enormous power to lift off from the runway, or floating in a Rigid Airship which requires no power at all to leave the ground and only a minute fraction of the aeroplane's engine power to move through the air. 1 think many of us will prefer to float.

The advance of technology has finally enabled the Rigid Airship's time to have come, nearly a century after its premature introduction by a courageous and pious old man.

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's-Graveland, March 1996


EEC Archive: Ian/Rob Bedford

Stand Rigid Airship Design/Bedford July 1996

During a press conference on July 5th, 1996 at the International Airship Convention and Exhibition (from 5th - 7th July in Bedford, England) the Scottish Airship expert, Mr. Ian Alexander, revealed the initial aspects of his project to design and construct Rigid Airships in the Netherlands.

As speaker at the conference Mr Alexander informed those present of the advantages of the modern Rigid Airship from the point of view of environment and energy conservation. Modern Rigid Airships are equipped with the most up-to-date avionics and constructed with modern materials and technology. A 180 meter Rigid Airship (the type proposed) is filled with non-inflammable helium lifting gas, and can support a useful load in the region of 35,000 kilos. Compared with aeroplanes and helicopters with similar performance the Airship’s fuel usage is negligible, and the environmental impact on its surrounding is minuscule.

It started at this office in 's-Graveland
Rigid Airship Design was formally started in early 1996. With Governmental support it is possible that the first of the new generation of Rigid Airships could be flying in 2001. Several Dutch cities have shown serious interest in having the building hangars sited in their region.

The possibilities offered by the Rigid Airship Design initiative could create thousands of employment opportunities, as well as increased demand for the services of existing companies in the aircraft industry and associated industries. International feasibility studies have identified a need for more than 1000 Airships world-wide over the coming 20 years.

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In the early part of this century enormous Rigid Airships were a common sight, the most famous being the "Graf Zeppelin". However, few of us today have ever seen one. After the start of the 2nd world war the Rigid Airship vanished entirely from the skies. But in 1995 the Scottish Airship expert, Mr. Ian Alexander, brought together a group of some of the world’s leading experts in lighter-than-air technology and launched, in co-operation with the Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands, a plan to build environmentally sound, energy efficient and commercially viable Rigid Airships destined for use in the 21st century. With modern materials and high power-to-weight engines it is possible today to produce a fully certificated and commercially viable product. The company Rigid Airship Design is a favourable initiative that ultimately stands to provide employment for thousands of jobs in Holland, not forgetting the many supply companies who at the moment render their services to the existing aircraft industry.

Not only the Aeronautical Faculty of TU-Delft but also the Ministry of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority (RLD) have taken these plans very seriously and have promised their full co-operation. The Dutch media (a.o. de Volkskrant, Telegraaf, Trouw, Algemeen Dagblad, Het Financieele Dagblad and the Haagsche Courant) have already given considerable media-coverage regarding this initiative. The Dutch government, especially the department of Economic Affairs, "Verkeer en Waterstaat" and the department of Environment, represented by their Ministers, have taken a very positive attitude towards the initiative and answered positively on the request for possible financial support by the Dutch Government.

Impression1 Lelystad

Impression of the future "site" in Lelystad

Different city Governments, for example Rijswijk, Rotterdam and Lelystad, have shown their support for the project, with Rotterdam and Lelystad, amongst others, actively pursuing the siting of the production base in their respective communities. Worldwide there is great interest in Rigid Airships, especially in the USA, the U.K., Germany, Brazil and the former Soviet Union. According to studies undertaken by NASA and others, there will be a requirement in excess of 1000 Airships over the next 20 years.

The prelimenary design of the 180m long Rigid Airship, NL-1, is complete and detailed design has begun. This Rigid Airship will be filled with non-inflammable helium and will be the safest aircraft ever built. This unique craft could serve as the "Flagship" for the builder and during the turn of the century it could act as a flying promotion center for (Dutch) trade and industry. The first Airship will be named "Holland Navigator".

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A Rigid Airship is formed by joining a series of wire braced metal polygons by longitudinal girders, then covering the framework with a fabric cover. Inside the framework is a series of gas cells, filled with non-inflammable helium lifting gas. Because the helium is in closed compartments, tailored to fit the customer’s requirements, space inside the framework of a Rigid Airship can be made available for accommodiation, equipment and freight.

Airships currently seen above cities all over the world undertaking commercial advertising roles are, almost without exception, small pressure airships, called ‘Blimps’. These are totally different from the larger Rigid Airships. A blimp airship is simply a large streamlined balloon filled with pressurized helium. The entire fabric hull is required for gas containment, and the hull itself cannot be used for the transportation of people or goods. That is why a gondola is hung under a Blimp for the engines and payload. Blimps are used mainly for short endurance advertising purposes.

If there is any failure of its single gas containing balloon, a blimp must land immediately. On the contrary, in the case of a ‘Rigid’, failure of one of its unpressurized multiple gas cells does not affect the ability of the airship to continue its flight normally. In addition, Blimps are normally powered with only one or two engines, often placed in nascelles outside the gondola and therefore inaccessible during flight. A modern Rigid Airship has a minimum of four engines, all of which are accessible and can be maintained during flight, thereby enhancing both safety and endurance.


That is why the initiators have chosen to build Rigid Airships instead of blimps. Another consideration is that blimps, which constitute all airships currently flying, have never been commercially established in roles other than basic advertising, limited television transmission, and short term surveillance.

On the contrary, the Rigid has demonstrated its capability over many years in an extensive range of both military and civilian roles and can more than fulfil all today’s expressed requirements for lighter-than-air vehicles.

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Scale Model

Scale Model
The Holland Navigator is a Rigid Airship. This type of Airship is capable of accepting a useful load in the region of 35 tonnes. Its deployment range can be in excess of 20.000 kilometres, it has a speed of 148 kms/hr and its endurance can be measured in weeks. It can be configured either for passenger or freight transport, for aerial surveillance work, or for use as a flying exhibition hall for industry. It can land at any suitable open area equipped with an easily transportable mooring mast. Complex ground infrastructure is not required. On the sides of the Holland Navigator companies are able to display huge illuminated corporate exposures by means of logos and other displays in any colour or shape.

The Dutch company 'Rigid Airship Design N.V.' will start the construction of its first Airship (the Holland Navigator) in 2000.

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Until 1937, after decades of passenger operations conducted worldwide, not a single fare paying passenger had ever been injured, far less killed, in a Rigid Airship. The universally known disaster to The Hindenburg on 6th May 1937 was due to the fact that its lifting gas was explosive hydrogen. What is less well-known is that two thirds of those on board survived. Today’s Airships are required by law to be filled with non-inflammable helium, which presents no fire risk whatsoever, and can actually be used to extinguish fire. Two other causes of accidents to Airships in the past were lack of understanding of aerodynamic stresses in the evolution of their design and the lack of adequate weather information in flight. In the early years of this century there were no pilot training schemes other than experience and the crew did not have today’s navigation systems, radar or weather satellite information.

The modern Airship will be by definition the safest vehicle in the air. It does not even depend on engine power to remain aloft, buoyancy in the air being provided from the inert helium lifting gas. Tests by the US navy as early as the 1950's demonstrated conclusively in practical flying that lighter than air technology had advanced to the point where their radar-carrying Airships consistently maintained an on-station performance in excess of their similarly equipped aeroplanes, even during missions conducted under heavy weather (full gale) conditions.

An Airship does not require a runway and can moor safely and efficiently to a transportable touring mast, on any suitable open ground.

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The team of designers is managed by the fifty four year old Scottish Airship expert, Mr. Ian Alexander, who has more than 30 years active participation in the design and construction of Airships. In 1992, Mr Alexander was C.E.O. of Imperial Airships Ltd. and provided the GA 42 Blimp which acted as the prime security vehicle during the Olympic Games in Barcelona. In addition, he has advised the US Coast Guard regarding airship usage and was selected to advise the town of Friedrichshafen on airship development.

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The idea for this new industry is a unique possibility to develop not only a much talked-about project but also a commercial industry with a tremendous market potential. The Netherlands have a highly developed industrial infrastructure and also have the advantage of one of the world’s leading aeronautical faculties (TU Delft). The Netherlands have a long standing involvement in aviation, and in view of the recent discontinuation of Fokker, Rigid Airships can take advantage of specialists who are out of work or may become out of work. The flat country of Holland is most convenient for the education and training of pilots and also for the performance of test flights. The market for a product with the capabilities of a long endurance aerial platform has existed in earnest since the mid 1970's. The NL-1 Rigid Airship will meet, and indeed exceed, the expressed requirements by governmental and commercial agencies for such a vehicle.
Site Lelystad

Proposed Site at Lelystad

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