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Zeppelin. The name still demands respect from blimp pilots worldwide. And while rigid airships have been grounded for many decades, the German company called CargoLifter is making progress on an advanced zeppelin-like craft that can carry extremely heavy loads.

Ambitious? Yes. CargoLifter is creating a helium-filled airship called the CL 160 that is three times the size of a football field, capable of carrying up to 160 metric tons. In comparison, the biggest military and civilian helicopters typically run less than 20 tons.

Payloads are expected to include large drilling and mining equipment, as well as supplies for remote communities.

The airships will speed along at nearly 60 miles an hour, and could make a transatlantic trip in three to four days. The first CL 160 should be complete by the end of 2003, with commercial service projected for 2005. CargoLifter wants a fleet of them working around the world in 15 years.

Hangar High

You could tuck a football stadium inside the first CargoLifter hangar, now complete in Germany.

With the prototype under production, the hangar to house it (in Brand, Germany) is complete. And what a hangar it is. The massive structure holds 5.5 million cubic meters of space and could comfortably house a football stadium, 14 Boeing 747s or nine soccer fields.

A similar hanger will be constructed at the company’s 5000-acre facility in New Bern, North Carolina. “We’re holding off on a final design,” says CargoLifter president Charles Edwards, from the company’s U.S. office in Raleigh. The company obviously likes to think big. “We’ve learned we need more space. We’ve leased twice the space we have in Germany.”

The facility will likely include an industrial park and theme park like the one in Germany, CargoLifter World.

Taking Flight

Edwards notes that the CargoLifter CL 160 isn’t really a zeppelin, but a semi-rigid airship. Zeppelins have rigid skeletons, while the CargoLifter holds its shape from internal pressure of the helium. And unlike a blimp, the CargoLifter has a keel, which runs along the underside of the helium-filled envelope. The weight of the payload is distributed along the keel.

Coming out of the hangar, the CL 160 attaches to a mobile mast that is pulled along by a rail car. Once aloft, the airship can reach a maximum altitude of 6,000 feet, propelled by four 1,900-horsepower General Electric CT-7 helicopter engines. Another four CT-7 engines maneuver the airship.

When the CargoLifter reaches its destination, ground cables are connected and water is pumped into the CL 160 to hold it in place if a cable breaks. The airship need not land to unload its cargo, which is why it is sometimes referred to as a “flying crane.” The payload can be discharged while the CargoLifter hovers at 300 feet.

Tricky Training

No pilots are currently trained to fly an airship of this type. Edwards says the company is still working with various government agencies to develop pilot certification standards, which will be developed while the CL 160 prototype is constructed.

“You’re dealing with something that’s akin to a submarine,” Edwards points out. “It’s similar to sailing, in that you have to understand low-altitude weather patterns. And because of its complexity, it’s like flying a Boeing 777.”

Pilots will be trained at airship simulators at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and another facility in Bedford, England. Once the airship is in production, CargoLifter plans to build several training facilities of its own.

Flying the AirCrane

Now being tested, the unmanned CL 75 “AirCrane” can tote up to 75 tons, the company says.

The project has seen its share of setbacks. The CL 160’s viability has been called into question by the German press, as the dates of the first flights have been pushed back. And the initial cost projections for producing the CL 160 have jumped from 80 million euro (about $68 million) to 590 million euro (about $502 million). The company cites these overruns and date setbacks as part of the price for bringing a major technological effort to market.

While readying to get the big ship off the ground, the company will focus on a transport balloon it calls an “AirCrane” that can lift 75 tons. The balloon can be towed by trucks, ships or helicopters, as well as a stationary winch-cable device. CargoLifter hopes to pull in revenue using the CL 75 in Canada by the third quarter of 2002.

This week CargoLifter outlined its plans again at the 14th American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Lighter-Than-Air Technical Committee Convention and Exhibition in Akron, Ohio.

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