Airship hopes afloat

A fleet of newfangled airships could serve Canada's northern territories, if Discovery Air has its way. The Yellowknife-based aviation company has partnered with a team of British engineers to produce these new vehicles.

A fleet of newfangled airships could serve Canada’s northern territories, if Discovery Air has its way.

The Yellowknife-based aviation company has partnered with a team of British engineers to produce these new vehicles, the first of which would roll off the production line by 2014.

If these airships live up to their hype, they could prove to be a gamechanger in how mines are serviced in remote corners of the Yukon.

Part blimp, part helicopter, these vehicles look far different than old-style zeppelins. Shunning the traditional cigar-shaped design, prototypes instead resemble an extremely pudgy wing.

Thrust engines would help steer the ship, bring it to a hover, or, when put in reverse, suck it to the ground during loading.

The airships would be buoyant thanks to inert helium, rather than explosive hydrogen.

These vehicles are not science fiction. Discovery Air’s partner, Hybrid Air Vehicles, has already teamed-up with Northrop Grumman to win a contract, worth $500 million, to build the American military an airship to conduct surveillance above Afghanistan by next year.

This football-field-length airship is expected to be capable of staying afloat for 21 days at 20,000 feet above sea level. It also has a special skin designed to absorb a fair share of bullets while remaining afloat.

The airships being designed with Discovery Air would be 120 metres long and haul a 50-tonne payload 2,000 kilometres, at speeds of up to 185 kilometres per hour.

That’s considerably slower than conventional aircraft. But airships are expected to consume much less fuel.

And they’d require very little infrastructure, being able to launch from gravel airstrips, water, snow or ice.

Each airship is expected to cost $40 million.

The planners who propose to ban roads within much of the Peel Watershed have pointed to airships as a potential way for miners to haul out their ore.

But hurdles remain to be cleared before the vehicles will be seen floating in Yukon skies.

The airships must still be certified. And it remains to be seen whether they’re able to withstand Arctic winds and cold.

Until they are, Discovery Air won’t commit to exercising its option to buy the first 45 airships off production lines.

But interest in airships is growing. Last week, Anchorage hosted a conference devoted to the topic, sponsored, in part, by Hybrid Air Vehicles.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, the company proposed some novel uses for airships. Not only could they service remote oil and gas operations, but they could also serve as floating health centres to periodically visit far-flung communities.

Discovery Air has also touted airships as a solution to serving mines in the Northwest Territories that are currently dependent on ice roads, which have melted earlier in the year as global temperatures rise.

So, if a Yukon mining company is looking for alternatives to building a pricey access road, they should give Discovery Air a call, said Sheila Venman, vice-president of communications.

“We’d be very pleased to speak with them.”

Contact John Thompson at