One of the next times you look up into the sky, it might not be a bird or a plane (or a blimp) that you see but a new kind of airfaring vehicle called the "Hybrid Airship."
Lockheed Martin has been developing the half-airplane wing/half-blimp for two decades as a new, cost-effective way to cruise cargo through the air. Now, at the designed length of a football field and height of an eight-story building, the giant concept vehicle is finally getting ready to hit the sky next year.
We traveled to Lockheed headquarters in California to get an up-close look at the 1/3 scale Hybrid Airship that successfully flew in 2006 to learn more about what the aerospace company is calling its “faster-than-a-ship-slower-than-a-plane” transportation technology.
The small test version of the Hybrid Airship, called the P-791, was over 100 feet long and still towered over us and my host, Bob Boyd, Lockheed Martin's Hybrid Airship project manager.
"[The difference between the upcoming Hybrid Airship and a blimp] is it's large, first of all," he explained.
The modern Goodyear blimps are just under 200 feet or about 33 percent smaller than what the Hybrid Airship will be. But its size alone is not what will provide all that cargo-carrying power promised. Some of that will come thanks to the Hybrid Airship's wing-like shape.
"It's also go that aerodynamic lift ... So you may have a capacity for a few thousands pounds with a typical [round] airship, where our capacity is 47,000 pounds plus fuel," said Boyd.
Like most airships, the full Hybrid and its mini version are built with helium-filled fabric envelopes. And they're also low-pressure, which is why they don't go "pop!" or quickly lose buoyancy when a bird beak rips into them mid-flight.
Since helium tends to mostly stay put, airships are traditionally fuel efficient, and full-size the Hybrid Airship will be, too. Boyd said it will even be able to cruise once around the world without refueling, albeit at a slower speed than its normal 70 mph cruising rate. Since the vehicle is being developed, in part, to transport cargo to places in the world that are impossible or just plain too expensive to reach today, that range is essential.
And judging by the comfy, full-scale hybrid airship passenger cabin mock-up Lockheed let me get comfy in, those long trips might not be so bad for crews having to endure them.
There are 19 luxurious business-class airliner seats behind the flight deck. Since the Hybrid flies at a low altitude, its non-pressurized cabin allows for giant windows, which could make the sky ship a heck of a way to take the scenic route to wherever you're going.
Lockheed's upcoming Hybrid Airship isn't the only vehicle of it's type in development. The British-made Airlander 10 plane-airship, currently regarded as the world's longest aircraft, is about the same size and has already flown more than 300 test miles. Boyd did say that Lockheed plans to start work on larger Hybrid Airships after its first models ship, with a possible 1000-foot model coming years down the road.
Test runs of its first Hybrid Airship could be months away, and Lockheed's first committed customer, a small airline company called Straightline, is expecting its order to be fulfilled in 2020.