Abandoned by Army, world’s longest aircraft turns up in UK

A 300-foot-long aircraft originally developed for, but then dropped by the Army, was recently re-unveiled in Great Britain as the world’s largest aircraft.

The HAV 304 “Airlander” is an amalgamation of airship, airplane, helicopter and hovercraft features, and is referred to as a hybrid air vehicle. While the aircraft most closely resembles an airship, or dirigible, and is filled with helium, the shape of the balloon allows the vehicle to generate lift. It is expected to be able to stay aloft for three weeks and carry up to 22,000 pounds of cargo.

The entire aerostat, a terms that encompasses all tethered and free flying lighter than air craft, can also be piloted remotely, making it the largest unmanned aerial vehicle as well.

Hybrid Air Vehicles, based in Cardington, England, sees the utility of the vehicle in terms of its operational flexibility. The Airlander will be able to conduct conventional take-off and landing and vertical take-off and landing on both land and water. In the future, the blimp may be used to deliver humanitarian aid, provide communications, broadcast sporting events and conduct surveillance missions.

Development of the aircraft began as a U.S. Army project, and a surveillance configuration is one of two available options for the Airlander, the other being a civil heavy lift version. The surveillance vehicle can operate at up to 16,000 feet for up to five days as a manned vehicle.



In 2010, Northrop Grumman and HAV partnered to develop the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for the Army, but the program was plagued by technical and performance challenges and eventually was discontinued due to budget issues. The blimp was sold back to HAV for a mere $301,000, a fraction of the development cost.

The military has had an interest in airships as unconventional threats requiring long periods of surveillance replaced conventional hard targets. Airships offer an advantage over other surveillance systems because their endurance is much longer than that of conventional aircraft or even UAVs, and they are much cheaper to operate, according to Defense Industry Daily

By maintaining a three-week continuous hover, airships can serve as a communications relay or work as semi-permanent overwatch positions, monitoring convoys, roadways or other important pieces of infrastructure. Tethered blimps have been used to monitor the Texas-Mexico border to support counter-narcotics operations, and in Afghanistan to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for small forward operating bases.

While blimp technology has been attempted for some time now, the latest iteration of the technology offers a new set of capabilities, and is much safer than blimps from a century ago.  Having received a U.K. government grant for $4.2 million, the Airlander is expected to fly in the U.K. later this year.

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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