Saturday, January 05, 2013

Thunderbird Is...Go?

     The lifting-body airship just won't lay down and die; there's a half-scale model (with an uncanny resemblance to a Gerry Anderson prop) slated to fly shortly, accompanied by the usual "military applications..." boilerplate.

     Much as I love 'em -- and I do -- that'd be a big ol' NO.  Airships are not a really great choice for anything but well-behind-lines military apps: they're slow (even the fast ones) and large, which adds up to "target!"  Helium doesn't burn but it leaks right out  and once you've done the shoulder-fired ground-to-air rocket thing to a cell or three, brace for impact!  And they require heap plenty ground crew and a place to put the vehicle when it's not flying -- while modern intelligent control systems will help reduce that, there's a limit to how far you can go keeping a gigantic lighter-than-air weathercock under control; if they're staying very long, they've got to go indoors, as the enormous hangars at Lakehurst, Akron and Sunnydale, Sunnyvale CA* attest.

     I think -- I hope! -- there's a future for airships, but it's hauling freight and passengers well away from war zones.  Lowish, slowish, cheap and enormous aren't a problem for most tourists and many cargos.  Figure out how to integrate containerized freight and you'd be onto something.
* Not to mention Weeksville, NC, Écausseville, France or Rio de Janeiro -- "Airship hangar! It's the box white elephants are shipped in!"  Clearly, this many empty hangars must indicate a shortage of dirigibles, no? If you build it...? Hasn't happened yet. Dean Ing once described conditions under which airships might become popular but let's not go there just now.


Jeremy Brock said...

For a lot of reasons, admittedly including the way it pushes my aesthetic buttons, I really hope Ohio Airships' "Dynalifter" turns out to have a market.

Anonymous said...

What really sucks is I just found out Gerry Anderson died late December.

Brains was my hero.

Earl Harding

Roberta X said...

Earl, yeah -- I wear glasses and fight a mild stammer, myself. I always liked Brains, though any more I keep seeing him as a kind of engineering version of Andy Warhol.

...I identified more with Gabrielle Drake (purple-haired boss of UFO's Moonbase), though nowadays the degree of fanservice cheesecake in UFO is fairly annoying.

Jeremy: that's a nice one! I do think there's a future for them. Just not where they'll be shot at.

GreyLocke said...

According to the story the current model is limited to 66 tons, a M1 Abrams at it current iteration weighs 82 tons if I am remembering correctly, so it wouldn't be of too much use in moving armored forces.

However as you said containerized cargo could make this a money maker for shippers.

Also one of these could serve as commuter craft for smaller outlying towns with their much smaller if any airfields.

Bear said...

Heh. When I was writing, I had LTAs in combat; LTAs that could reach escape velocity. Of course, mine were He-3 fusion powered with chrome trim, leather bucket seats, and antimatter particle beams* (possibly redundant, given the fusion rocket) as available options.

(* The armed version only appeared in one story.)

Comrade Misfit said...

I kind of think that airships are as much a niche tech as they have been since the late `30s. Helium is a finite resource and there is no workable substitute for that. (Sure, they could use hydrogen, but a few playings of "oh, the humanity" clip will scotch that.)





Old NFO said...

They are looking at these for supply lift, and it's actually Sunnyvale, CA not Sunnydale... :-D

John A said...

The "lighter than air" part is supposed to be solved by on-board compression of the gas to be heavier-than-air.

But it still uses Helium. Which is not readily available, being a by-product of oil/natural gas production usually bled off - though that could be changed.

Nit-pick: the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen because the US would not sell [anyone] helium, not because it was "patriotic."

Jess said...

I can envision a practical application in the movement of pipe for pipelines in areas with limited access, or the timber industry.

Roberta X said...

Old NFO: Fixed.

Bear: See, you fixed that problem with "slow."

Helium: Plenty of it out there. --And altogether too much being wasted.

Hydrogen: worst problem is, the flame isn't very visible. The Hindenberg wreck was terrible, but the Akron and Macon, filled with safe, safe helium, bracketed it for crew survival rates -- nearly all hands made it when Macon went down, while nearly all Akron's men were lost. Two in three survived Hindenburg's fire. (And debate still rages over the possibility of materials/construction making that fire far worse than it should have been.)

Bear said...

Re: "slow"- Damned right. [grin]

The real problem with LTAs isn't the shortage of a good lifting gas. It's power. Akron and Macon were both lost due to weather-related problems they simply didn't have to power to bull through the way a modern jet-powered airliner does.

Whatever buoyancy gas you use, you need a lot, which means a huge volume, which translates in turn to high drag. Heck, you could use cheap ammonia for lift if power wasn't a problem. Ammonia only has roughly 60% of the lifting power of hydrogen or helium, but in compensation liquifying it quickly for buoyancy changes is easier and negates much of the need for throw-away ballast. And it's cheap.

Making the LTA a lifting body (as these guys are doing, and as I did fictionally), also helps with lift and drag. But you still need power to make it work. Of course, as you increase the available thrust, you need to beef up the air frame which adds mass.

Or you can just live with a slow-but-efficient cargo craft. Ever seen an oil supertanker on hydrofoils?

Wildman7316 said...

If you haven't already read it, I recommend Dean Ing's "The Big Lifters".

All the "New" stuff they are working on now, written in 1988...

Fred said...

There was mention of essencially making "airborne cruise-ships" with them. I like that idea.

perlhaqr said...

As far as freight goes, it's going to be hard to beat our current system of trains and trucks.

I could see it for oilfield exploration, or other related "gotta build something in the middle of nowhere" tasks, though.

And, I dunno. I'm not sure about passenger stuff. Since it would surely be as annoying to get on one as it is an airplane, now, once I've gotten through that I just want to get there as fast as possible. Unless the beancouunters don't make them stuff the passengers in like sardines, it just seems likely to be a slower version of the same uncomfortable trip. :(

Anonymous said...

That tower on the tippy top of the Empire State Bldg in NYC was going to be used as a mooring dock for the big dirigibles of that era. Interesting.The ship would tie up there but how would the passengers get down?? I don't thing lowering a rope ladder out a port and letting the passengers climb down would be the best way, hey?

Roberta X said...

An enclosed gangway -- as in, "Ganway, I'm'a running across this scary thing as fast as I can!"

IIRC, what doomed the ESB mooring mast were the surprisingly strong gusts the buildings of Manhattan funnel in varying and unexpected direction.

John A said...

Again, while helium is given off by oil wells, it is seldom captured - partly because transporting it is not pften a good option. It is simply allowed to bleed off - resulting in shortages.

The medical community (and party-balloon suppliers) have certainly noticed.

Anonymous said...

Never really considered them for commercial movement of product or people, but really think they could be very practical for jobs poorly done by helicopters now. With a much longer loiter time on station than any chopper, they could be used for running electrical wire in remote areas or other construction type activities over rough terrain where getting a semi in (and back out) isn't realistic.

Angus McThag said...

Ain't gonna get Airlords of the Ozarks until someone starts a company what makes the things!

Stretch said...

The most likely use for such a craft is tourism.
The ports of many cruse destinations are at maximum capacity.
"See the sights without leaving your cabin." could be a bid seller for aerial cruse ships.
And I'm sure we could get the Greenies behind it by pitching it as "eco-flight."