Airship builders aim to join Alaska skyline
It's been nearly a century since the rounded form of an airship - better known as a blimp - graced Alaska's airspace.
That will change this summer when Skyship Services Inc. flies its 200-foot Skyship 600 into Anchorage, the first visit of such a ship since 1927. While the oblong aircraft are more commonly seen above NFL games or other major televised events, the visit to Alaska isn't so much a novelty as the testing of new waters.
Though not entirely new.
The U.S. Navy ran large airships in the north during World War II, said Skyship Services Business Manager Francis Govers, and operated year-round in northern Canada. There are also current operations by Russian and Canadian interests using modern airships in the far north, he said.
Some of Alaska's leaders think airships may be the next step in safe and effective air travel in Alaska - specifically rural Alaska. Their uses include research pursuits in mineral exploration, aerial surveys, maritime patrols, wildlife observation and environmental monitoring.
"We're very good at maritime patrol, particularly in the far north," Govers said. "There is a history of it working. This is not intended to be a one-off stunt. This is intended to be the first trip of many."
Following an invite from Alaskan political leaders, Skyship Services agreed to make an inaugural visit in the hopes of seeking out a new branch of its industry.
"We are coming to Alaska to work," said Skyship Services President Julian Benscher in a release. "We are bringing the airship to show how it can earn its pay as an aerial platform for sensors and observation. We may do a bit of sightseeing - Alaska is a beautiful place, after all - but we are coming to show that we can work in Alaska - and we hope to come back to base an airship here permanently."
Limited road systems and troublesome weather are classic challenges to necessary aviation operations in Alaska - which is more dependent on air travel than any other state. The stability of airships comes from not banking in turns like other aircraft, keeping their sensors aimed toward the ground. Their low, slow flight pattern makes them good candidates for many kinds of aerial surveys.
"Alaska's limited road system in turn limits the ability to efficiently survey our resource rich lands," said Senator Lesil McGuire (R-Anchorage) in a recent release. "It makes perfect sense for Alaska to have an airship to open up access to opportunities in resource development that will help secure Alaska's financial future."
Airships can take off vertically, Govers added, and require very little in the way of ground development. This makes them ideal for rural exploration in places that have little existing infrastructure.
"We don't require an airport to take off and land at," Govers said. "All we need is a 400 foot circular clearing and we can make that an airship airport, or airship terminal. It doesn't have to be paved, because the airship doesn't actually sit on the ground."
This factor, combined with its maneuverability and slow flying speed, make it excellent for rural observation, he said.
A little farther in the future is the potential for a cargo airship, Govers said. The SkyTug, currently in development, will be capable of carrying up to 50 tons of cargo. The ability to move that kind of freight safely could change the manner of goods delivery in the Bush, he said.
"That opens up a whole new area for Alaska," Govers said. "On top of that, it doesn't need a runway to land."
The Skyship 600, which will likely be in Anchorage around Independence Day and stay until September, is the largest of its kind in operation. It can hold up to 15 people - or two tons of cargo - cruises at about 40 mph, and can run for about 18 hours per trip.
Many people relegate the ships to one of two categories - the unassuming observers of sporting events, or the vessels of historic tragedy. The later of course refers to the Hindenburg disaster, during which a German passenger airship crashed and exploded during landing in New Jersey in 1937. The spectacular news footage of the event, which killed 35 people, has stuck in minds the world over.
"A lot of people can't get past the Hindenburg," Govers said. "But the truth about airships is they are a very sturdy flying system. They're the farthest thing from fragile."
Modern airships use non-flammable helium to lift off the ground, he said, and thrust-vectoring engines to maneuver.
The reality, according to McGuire's office and Skyship Services, is that airships are the safest and most environmentally friendly aircraft flying today.
"This is an exciting opportunity for Alaska to witness the potential of airships in this environment," Sen. McGuire said. "This mature technology has the potential to drive new resource development in Alaska."
For more information, contact Senator Lesil McGuire's office at (907) 465-2995, or Skyship Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at email@example.com.