The Airbus A380 may be the largest commercial jet, but something far larger took to the skies in recent months.
Earlier this fall, a California startup embarked on a test flight of its new airship.
Flown with the help of 13 helium bags, a dozen electric motors and four fin rudders, “Pathfinder 1” exited its hangar at Moffett Field near Palo Alto in early November. After years of development, it’s beginning the next phase of its lifecycle: outdoor flight testing.
Far larger than the biggest passenger jets
The airship measures a whopping 408 feet in length. For context, an A380 jet (shown below) is 239 feet long.
Backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, it’s the product of Silicon Valley-based LTA Research. LTA is an acronym for “lighter than air,” which is what Pathfinder 1 is: Pilots inside a gondola control the airship’s motors and rudders with an electronics-controlled fly-by-wire system.
The airship received a special FAA airworthiness certification earlier this year, allowing LTA to conduct flight testing of the massive flying ship.
See an airship, and your thoughts might turn to the earlier days of aviation; back then, the craft were once considered an early rival to airplanes and used by the U.S. Navy, as noted by the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.
The age of the rigid airship “Zeppelins” also included the ill-fated, 800-foot-long Hindenburg, which killed dozens as it caught fire while docking in New Jersey in 1937.
In recent years, companies like Goodyear have flown their own version of an airship, though not nearly as big as LTA’s Pathfinder 1.
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How the airship might be used
What’s the vision for the massive airship now?
LTA sees Pathfinder’s mission as humanitarian: to complement response to disasters and relief efforts, particularly in remote areas where access by plane or boat is a challenge. Picture an island in the wake of a destructive hurricane.
Pathfinder 1 can withstand winds of up to 80 miles per hour, LTA claims. That’s equivalent to sustained winds seen during an active category one hurricane.
The company said its landing gear is equipped to land in areas with rougher terrain, where humanitarian missions might be carried out.
On top of delivering supplies, the airship would have the added ability to hover and provide cellphone service in the event towers are knocked out.
It’s also a more planet-friendly form of flight at a time when the aviation industry is grappling with its contributions to global emissions; the FAA has predicted a future in which electric air taxis and other innovative aircraft are likely to be a part of the aviation landscape.
On the day of the recent test flight, LTA CEO Alan Weston described his vision. “I can’t see airships replacing aircraft,” Weston told TechCrunch. “But I do see a niche for airships to be part of the transportation architecture that reduces the carbon footprint of air travel.”
Don’t expect to see Pathfinder 1 carrying out missions anytime soon. More significant testing is planned for the coming months, the company said.
Still, a potential future for an airship far larger than any jet we could board today is a compelling story to watch for aviation enthusiasts.