With media fanfare Friday in Britain, the world's largest aircraft was re-unveiled, a hybrid blimpish creation originally developed as a high-flying, state-of-the-art spy drone for the U.S. Army.
Also in the works is an even bigger, passenger-carrying version that could be aloft in about a year, the company said.
As long as a football field, the helium-filled HAV 304 "Airlander" is a cross between an airship, a plane, a helicopter and a hovercraft. It can stay aloft for three weeks, carry loads up to 22,000 pounds and set down on land, water or ice.
The manufacturer, Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd., of Cranfield, sees future potential in delivering humanitarian aid, providing communications, broadcasting sporting events, surveillance — and what a company spokesman called "pseudo-military use."
"Rather than having a police helicopter which are noisy and can only stay up for a limited period of time, these can stay airborne for a long time and be as overt or not as people want," Chris Daniels told The Telegraph.
The company also showed off the prototype of its tri-hull Airlander 50, which will carry passengers or 50 tons of cargo. Production is scheduled to begin later this year.
In June 2010, HAV partnered with Northrup Grumman to develop the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle for the U.S. Army. Though the aircraft made a successful test flight in August 2012 at Lakehurst, N.J., it was weighed down by problems, which a Government Accountability Office review said included being too heavy to stay at high altitudes for more than a few days instead of three weeks.
A year ago, behind schedule and facing mandatory budget cuts, the Army canceled the aircraft after spending $300 million. It was headed for scrap after HAV could not scrape together the Army's $44 million sale price. In September, however, the Army agreed to sell it back to HAV for $301,000, less than 1% of the original cost.
The firm's business and national pride were on display as its eclectic team showed off the Airlander to British media.
"This is a beautiful thing – the sheer imagination and scale of it – British-designed and built.," Bruce Dickinson, a funder, professional airline pilot and lead singer of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden toldThe Independent. "Rarely do you get the chance to be involved in something really at the cutting edge of aviation. We have created the world's largest aircraft from a shed in Bedford. It is something to be incredibly proud of."