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Airlander--bloodied, but unbowed.

When Airlander 10 nosedived on landing during a test flight, sustaining damage to its cockpit, many were quick to write the hybrid aircraft off as a blighted experiment. But the phoenix is already rising assuredly from the ashes of adversity

When the world's longest aircraft--the Airlander 10--was damaged after nosediving on landing at Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire in August last year during its second test flight, all of the hopes and dreams for its commercial future that been building to a pitch for so long suffered a major setback.

Although the flight itself was declared a success, the 25m [pounds sterling] 92m-long aircraft, part plane, part airship, sustained damage to its cockpit when it hit the ground during the flight. The vehicle had just completed its planned 100-minute flight when the accident happened.

It seemed a blow from which Airlander --a new breed of aircraft that utilises innovative aerospace technology, combining the best of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters with lighter-than-air technology--might struggle to recover.

Run the clock forward ten months and the prospects are much brighter, with a successful flight of Airlander 10 on 10 May. It flew for a total of 180 minutes before landing at 20:15 and was secured safely on the mast at 20:20. "It was truly amazing to be back in the air. I loved every minute of the flight and the Airlander itself handled superbly. I am eager to get back into the cockpit and take her flying again," says delighted Chief Test Pilot Dave Burns, who was on board with Experimental Test Pilot Simon Davies.

This test flight recommenced the Flight Test Programme of the Airlander 10, which started on August 17, 2016. It will now perform more tasks and be permitted to fly further away from its base in Cardington. This marks a welcome return to the skies of the world's largest aircraft and draws a line under the heavy landing it experienced last August.

The Airlander has now flown three times in addition to a successful flight as HAV-304 during the US Army's Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle program in 2012. There were considerable modifications since it was the HAV-304 and the Hybrid Air Vehicles team have made a number of additional modifications since last August, the main ones being a new more powerful and more manoeuvrable Mobile Mooring Mast (MMM), and the additional 'landing feet' of the Auxiliary Landing System (ALS). There were three Test Objectives during the most recent flight, all of which were successfully achieved:

* To conduct a full test flight--ie, complete a safe take-off, flight and landing of the aircraft

* To establish basic handling characteristics of Airlander within a well-defined flight envelope, including assessment of the new ALS.

* To collect flight performance data, such as handling, airspeed and all vehicle systems, for post-flight analysis. (This increases the understanding of the aircraft's performance, capabilities and operating envelope.)

The ALS performed as expected on landing, it is reported, and the Flight Test Team were very pleased with the initial analysis of this new addition to Airlander's landing system.

Ultimately, the expectation is for the Airlander 10 to break the mould of aviation, providing an ultra-stable, ultra-powerful and ultra-long endurance platform that will be useful in a huge number of roles from search and rescue, to border control, coastguarding, crowd monitoring, security, filming, academic research and filming. There will also be passenger variants for the ultimate flying experience and eventually Hybrid Air Vehicles will fulfil a crucial role in point-to-point cargo transportation to remote areas.

"This is a great testament to the tenacity and ingenuity of the team of engineers at Hybrid Air Vehicles, who are continually pushing the boundaries of aviation with this amazing aircraft," says technical director Mike Durham.

Overall, it seems the hurt suffered last year by Airlander's cockpit--and the team's pride--has not dented the confidence of those who believe in its future potential. Owner Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) was reported to be in the final stages of an equity financing raise from its existing shareholders, which is said to have gone very well. Nearly 5 million [pounds sterling] has been secured already and approximately 1 million [pounds sterling] remains available.

So, why all the excitement? The Airlander is the world's longest aircraft and is designed to stay airborne for days with a 10,000kg payload, and travel to remote regions with its land-anywhere ability, carrying cargo. It is likely that an early use will be for passenger tourist flights. Customer interest in all these areas has been extremely strong, states HAV.

The full Flight Test Programme will take a number of months and is split into three phases, each with the Airlander increasing its flight 'envelope' by incrementally increasing its range and duration, the complexity of flight manoeuvres, its speed and altitude and its payload. Over the coming weeks, the Airlander will be a common sight over Bedfordshire and, later this year, over the rest of the UK.

With its recent troubles seemingly behind it, the aircraft was moved out of the hangar by Hybrid Air Vehicles' expert Ground Crew in a manoeuvre which lasted just a few minutes. Airlander is a 92-metre long aircraft and has only 3 metres of clearance on either side as it exits the doors of its hangar. However, with state-of-the-art ground equipment this was easily achieved, states HAV.

During the last eight months, apart from the repairs carried out to the front of the aircraft caused by its heavy landing, a series of improvements and modifications have also been implemented, including the ALS landing feet. This is a pilot-deployable two airbag landing system, which the pilot can use as an extra cushion to land on. These will deploy on final approach and help protect the cockpit. It allows the aircraft to land safely at a greater range of landing angles.

The airbags are over 3 metres in length and contain 15 [m.sup.3] gas (less than 0.1% of the entire hull volume). There is an airbag on each side of the flight deck, which offers enhanced protection to the cabin and flight deck itself. It will be deployed on most landings in the flight test programme. It uses the existing ballonet fans to inflate and takes under 20 seconds to be ready for use.

Another major accomplishment is the commissioning of the MMM. This is an integrated tracked vehicle and mooring mast that makes it much easier to control and 'push back' the Airlander when manoeuvring it around the airfield. It has a single pivot interface with the Airlander and so makes a much simpler mechanism than was previously available. Both of these pieces of equipment are new to Airlander and have been developed as a direct result of advances that the team has established since the flight tests last August. They will make Airlander easier to manoeuvre and safer to land. "Both of these enhancements are great engineering innovations, and show the creativity and ingenuity of the team working on Airlander to great effect. We look forward to using them for real very soon," confirms Steve McGlennan, CEO Hybrid Air Vehicles.

NATURE OF TEST FLYING

Howard Wheeldon, an independent specialist analyst of aerospace and defence for the past 28 years and well-known speaker and commentator on global macro-economic and geo-political affairs, cuts right to the chase about what flight test programmes are and specifically the incident last August that seemed such a body blow at the time.

"No one was hurt, no one was injured and while the cockpit was slightly damaged, there was little, if any, other significant damage," he points out. "And yet, judging by the mass of headlines, photographs, withering and badly written comment and speculation by those that clearly do not understand what test flights are all about, one may be forgiven for thinking that the unfortunate Airlander 10 heavy landing incident had been a disaster waiting to happen! It was far from being that and the best way to describe the incident is that this is what test flying is all about."

Accidents do happen, mistakes do occur, much is learned and the whole concept and capability ends up being better understood, Wheeldon adds. "Test flights are, after all, just as much about collecting data and information, finding out new information of what the aircraft can and cannot do, as it is also about testing or exceeding boundaries.

"It is important that we all remember, as we look at the many successful aircraft types flying today, that each and every one most probably suffered a catalogue of issues that were only discovered during the Flight Test Programmes."

Those test programmes are there to expose such problems, and to allow designers, engineers and technicians, as well as test pilots themselves, to sort these issues out. "The Airlander 10 test flight programme is about learning not just how the airship performs in the air and what it can do and carry, but also about the ground-handling requirements and processes."

Wheeldon is in no doubt that lessons learned from the recent hard landing incident will see Airlander 10 performing even better, going forward.

"As we look at this amazing giant airship, we need to remind ourselves that what we are talking about here is the development of an entirely new type of aircraft, and one that flies in an entirely new and different way to anything else commercially available," he continues.

"With test pilot feedback so far excellent, and important flight data collected and that will now be collated, I continue to be very positive about the commercial future of Airlander 10. One small test flight incident from which much will be learned is not going to damage a programme such as this, whatever sceptics of airships might prefer to believe, and despite the occasional knock or incident that is bound to occur over the coming months as the test flight programme continues, nothing can alter the fact that Airlander 10 is cutting-edge aerospace technology at its best."

HIGH HOPES

Airlander is certainly one of a new breed of aircraft that utilises innovative aerospace technology, while leaving a significantly lower carbon footprint and operating cost than other forms of air transport. It has been designed to stay airborne for up to five days at a time to fulfil a wide range of communication and survey roles, as well as the cargo-carrying and tourist passenger flights already marked out for it. What is particularly engaging about these Airlanders is their low noise, low pollution and environmental friendliness. They have ultra-long endurance and a point-to-point cargo-carrying capacity.

The idea is to have them taking off and landing in a short distance from unprepared sites in desert, ice, water or open field environments. It had been a fairly smooth and promising run-up to the test phase, with Airlander formally granted permission to conduct its first series of flight tests by both EASA and the UK CAA.

The Airlander--which will support over 400 new jobs and be a great export generator for the UK--is expected to be a showcase of UK innovation. It is already being used in the UK Government's 'GREAT Britain' campaign to highlight the strength of the aerospace sector and the innovation in engineering this country is capable of creating.

Caption: Airlander: scaling new heights in its ambitions

Caption: Hybrid Air Vehicles will eventually fulfil a crucial role in point-to-point cargo transportation to remote areas

Caption: The idea is to have Airlanders taking off and landing in a short distance from unprepared sites in desert, ice, water or open field environments
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Title Annotation:AIRLANDER 10
Publication:Engineering Designer
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Words:1926
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