The World’s Longest Aircraft Is Half-Blimp, Half-Zeppelin

A discarded U.S. Army concept gets a new life in Britain.
Hybrid Air Vehicles

Unveiled last Friday, the Airlander is the world’s longest aircraft. Developed by Hybrid Air Vehicles, the 302-foot-long Airlander was once a candidate military craft called “Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle,” until Pentagon budget cuts forced the U.S. Army to abandon the program.

The Airlander resembles both a blimp and a Zeppelin, but it’s not quite either. Blimps have no rigid internal structure, while Zeppelins (technically, “rigid airships“) have a stiff internal structure that holds the shape of the aircraft. The Airlander is, as the company name implies, a hybrid airship that gets lift from bags of helium. It has a rigid structure that offers more control than comes with blimps. To house the massive aircraft, Hybrid Air Vehicles is using a century-old airship hangar in Bedfordshire, England.

The U.S. military considered the Airlander for surveillance and cargo transport. Global Hawks and Grey Eagles, America’s go-to surveillance aircraft, can each fly for about 30 hours. Fully stocked, the Airlander could stay in the sky for five days with a human crew. In wars where small armed groups move over vast rural areas, such as in the recent conflict in Afghanistan, a long-range surveillance tool is very valuable. While America’s military involvement in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, Hybrid Air Vehicles is billing the Airlander as a tool for humanitarian relief, communications relay, border patrol, search and rescue, and drug enforcement. In addition to surveillance, the Airlander can be set up to carry 55 tons of cargo.