WHO wants to help me build an airship? The reputation of the free market has a score to settle. Let me explain: blimps, zeppelins, dirigibles – whatever you call them, these stately giants of the sky, grounded since the 1940s, have never lost their hold on our imagination. From Pixar’s Up to the Final Fantasy video games, even if they no longer drift through our skies, they haunt our dreams.
Today, these wonderful machines have a chance to make a comeback, with commercial applications ranging from military surveillance to pipeline-free shipment of natural gas, to the tourism pioneered before the Second World War. But while there are technical hurdles to cross, the real roadblock is the cultural memory of a series of disastrous crashes, most famously that of the Hindenburg. Yet our memory gets the culprit wrong. The early airships were damned not by the limits of their technology, but socialist interference.
Consider Britain’s forgotten airships. In the 1920s, two projects, one government-run, the other privately-designed and built, battled to build an airship that could link the Empire. The rivals, codenamed R101 and R100, were nicknamed the Socialist and the Capitalist. The Capitalist team involved the engineer Nevil Shute, better known today for his novels, and Barnes Wallis, the genius behind the bouncing bomb.
Cruelly, the fate of the Socialist R101 damned both projects. Driven by political considerations beyond safety and commercial sense, R101 crashed in 1930 on its maiden voyage, killing 48, including the air minister. The official inquiry concluded: “the R101 would not have started for India… if it had not been that matters of public policy were considered as making it highly desirable that she should do so”. It ended the dream of a British airship. The Capitalist, despite a successful transatlantic flight, was mothballed and sold for scrap a year later.
The tale of the Socialist’s maiden voyage should be notorious as a lighter-than-air parable of the perils of political arrogance: a socialist Titanic. Instead, we have learned the wrong lesson, blaming technology and not those who thought their plans could override physical laws.
There is an opportunity to set this historic injustice right. The World Sky Race is due to launch from the prime meridian in Greenwich in 2014, and looks to see a fleet of airships racing around the globe competing for a $5m (£3.3m) prize.
Private prizes have long spurred aeronautic innovation, from the Orteig prize that sent Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic to the Ansari X Prize that launched today’s commercial space race. Modern airship projects that rely on governments continue to find them unreliable partners, like the blimp developed by the UK’s Hybrid Air Vehicles for the US Army but abruptly cancelled earlier this year.
The best way to bring airships back is to trust to private enterprise stimulated by competition. So I repeat, who wants to help me build one in time for the big race in 2014?