For a window of time between 1900 and 1920, airships seemed like the future of flight. Even well in the early 30s, zeppelins and other types of dirigible were common in Europe and America--the Empire State Building was even originally designed to act as a zeppelin docking station.
But the expensive, impractical ships--whose shortcomings were writ large by the Hindenburg disaster--were usurped by the commercial airplane of the 40s. Still, the dream of a rigid airship lives on for some engineers. Popular Science’s Josh Bearman recently visited one such believer, the Ukrainian engineer Igor Pasternak, who’s working to revive the aircraft--with a few design updates, of course.
Pasternak is the founder of a semi-rigid airship company called Worldwide Aeros based in California. His goal is to build a new generation of airship that can transport massive amounts of cargo anywhere on earth, and he believes he has solved the hundred-year-old conundrum that led to the rigid airship’s demise. The main problem, it turns out, was never lifting or propelling heavy cargo. Rather, it was controlling the empty craft that confounded zeppelin engineers. Without ballast (eg, cargo weight), an empty airship has no power to control its own movement.
Pasternak’s AerosCraft is, structurally, fairly similar to zeppelins of yore. What’s changed is the design of the "gas bags" that power its flight. Pasternak has designed a series of compression chambers to hold the helium that gives the craft its buoyancy. Pilots will be able to control the compression, thereby controlling the amount of lift their ship has--making it easier to control when empty. A few other design updates--like swapping the typical steel frame for carbon fiber--accompany. But it’s solving the ballast problem that could change the game, and Pasternak is leading the pack of aerospace engineers working to develop a ship based on his simple insight.
After decades of inconclusive testing, spurned funding initiatives, and even tragedy (the engineer’s sister and close friend were killed repairing a ship in 2000), Pasternak is building an 800-foot-long test model at Worldwide Aeros’ Montebello headquarters. If he’s successful, the Aeroscraft would be of major interest to a number of parties, including the military: to Bearman, the prototype could carry more than six times the maximum cargo capacity of the C-17, the US military’s standard cargo plane.