Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Skunk Works Air Ships.

One Million Pounds of Cargo By Air

The revived interest in very large cargo airships can be directly linked to global commerce. More than 36 billion tons of cargo — everything from flowers to food to Formula 1 race cars — are shipped around the world annually. But in the last twenty years, the military has also seen a need to quickly move large quantities of everything from relief supplies to tanks into areas that often don’t have adequate — if any — infrastructure. A ship can carry a large load inexpensively, but it takes two to three weeks to get from China to the United States. A 747 air freighter can get cargo around the world in hours, but the cost is about sixty cents per ton mile, and space is limited. With a hybrid airship, a large quantity of good can be shipped around the world in about three days for around twenty-five cents per ton mile. The Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is developing a family of airships to fill that middle niche. By 2016, the captain of an airship nearly the length of three football fields and capable of carrying one million pounds of cargo (shown here) could issue the traditional "Up ship" command before starting a trip across the Atlantic.

SkyFreighter Cargo Box

The second in a family of hybrid airships, called SkyFreighter, is a regional lifter capable of carrying seventy tons of cargo. First flight of a 400-foot-long SkyFreighter is expected to come in 2014. This shot shows a fully equippped Stryker armored vehicle in the SkyFreighter cargo box, illustrating the airship's military potential. The cargo box for all three hybrid airship variants will have a roll-on/roll-off capability for vehicles.


The hybrid airship demonstrator was given the identifier P-791. The company-funded demonstrator, which is 123 feet long, fifty-three feet wide, and thirty feet high, was built in 2005. First flight came on 31 January 2006. All of the major components — cockpit, engines, fuel lines, control surfaces, ACLS pads — are attached on the outside of the envelope. The envelope is woven Vectran, a lightweight, high-strength material similar to Kevlar. The engines and propellers are mounted on aluminum rings that allow vectoring up and down and left and right for climbing, descending, and steering. The forward engine mounts are lashed to the envelope, while the two aft engines are attached with a composite, wishbone-shaped assembly that fits along the contours of the envelope. The engine/propeller/mount combinations, called thrusters, give P-791 a top speed of about thirty knots.


The third and largest variant of the hybrid airship family is called SkyLiner. This behemoth, expected to be flown in 2016, will measure 800 feet long and be capable of lifting 500 tons of cargo. SkyLiner will be used on international or transoceanic routes. The Air Cushion Landing System pads on SkyLiner, which will measure eighty feet long and thirteen feet tall, will retract to reduce drag. The projected commercial market could support a fleet of several hundred SkyLiners. All three airship variants will have long, rectangular cargo containers attached underneath the envelope. The flight deck is located in front. Each box will have a roll-on/roll-off capability and will accommodate containers or pallets. The SkyLiner cargo box is 300 feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty feet tall with an upper and a lower deck.


The Lockheed Martin hybrid airship demonstrator, called P-791, is 123 feet long, fifty-three feet wide, and thirty feet high, was built in 2005. First flight came on 31 January 2006. Company test pilot Eric Hansen made the first two flights and was followed by Bill Francis. The pilots sat side by side in an enclosed gondola with flight engineer Tim Blunck. A total of six flights, each about thirty minutes long, were carried out in the P-791 test program. The tests were mostly ground handling demonstrations. When out of ground effect, the airship crew remained in the traffic pattern at Palmdale, staying below 2,000 feet.


A year after going on contract, Aviation Capital Enterprises, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, announced on 17 March 2011 that it had teamed with the Skunk Works to develop, build, test, and certify to US Federal Aviation Administration standards a family of hybrid airships designed for heavy lift, economical cargo transport. Aviation Capital will market the hybrid airship to the commercial market, while Lockheed Martin retains rights to the military market.The first variant, called SkyTug (shown here), will be like a super-sized helicopter, only at about one-tenth the cost. SkyTug will have a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles at a cruise speed of sixty knots. It will be used on four- to eight-hour missions to support remote drilling sites or mines where there is no infrastructure for aircraft. The 290-foot-long SkyTug is scheduled to be flown in early 2013. The two airships called for in the initial contract will be built in Palmdale, as will any additional SkyTugs in the future.                                                                Artist concept by Joel Derrick 

Cargo Box Comparison

The second in a family of hybrid airships, called SkyFreighter, is a regional lifter capable of carrying seventy tons of cargo. An airship this size could be an enabler for countries to expand their economies. First flight of a 400-foot-long SkyFreighter is expected to come in 2014. This shot shows a comparison between the SkyFreighter (red box), C-5 Galaxy transport (yellow box), C-17 (blue box), and short fuselage C-130 (green line near the wall). The P-791 hybrid airship demonstrator, now filled only with air instead of helium, is in the background.


  1. Lot of potential here.

    How about supporting a group of light tactical aircraft or UCAVs? like the old USS Akron.

    Or acting as a mobile fire base (like the AC-130 with insane loiter).

  2. remember when LSTs were Large Slow Targets?

    Comparisons of this to airlifters only show how little such an aircraft can hold.

    Analysis showing how such aerial vehicles could transport materials to AFG would be interesting (thus getting the US around or over Pakistan our not so good ally?

    1. The secret draw of the airship is the sheer space of the cargo hold, particularly for rigid airships. This nonrigid airship, the skytug, has a huge hold, relative to other aircraft, but even it is limited in size due to air resistance. In rigids, the hold's size is limited only by the external dimensions of the airship- imagine a warehouse-like space over 300 feet long and 90 feet wide, in an airship only 450 feet long.

      This is a much larger problem than you might imagine. Even the largest cargo planes- such as the 100-ton payload 747 freighter, or the 135-ton payload C-7 Galaxy- oftentimes are limited to carrying much smaller weights, because their fuselages are not capacious enough for cargo that wasn't extremely dense. Hence, silly aircraft like the Super Guppy and Beluga.

      Couple its ability to carry the full potential of its payload every single time, with the immense payloads of 50, 200, 500, 1,000 tons, depending on its size, and you have something truly impressive. The largest plane ever built, the tragically impractical Antonov An-225, can only carry 250 tons, and it's expensive, dependent on large airports, uses frightening amounts of fuel, and so on. Airships aren't just cheap to buy, they're quite affordable to operate, with low fuel and maintennance costs, and no pesky airports to build and maintain. The only drawback is the lower speed, but when you can carry as much in one trip as the largest airplane can in 4, having 1/4 the speed becomes less of a problem.

  3. yeah but a small fleet could move a Stryker Brigade or even an Airborne Division to an area rather quickly...especially in a developing situation.

    more importantly though is the fact that they can be used to augment strategic airlift. we might have 200 plus C-17's but its not enough and this can lift far more.

  4. They may not be able to carry much compared to a naval transport but its vulnerable to a lot less. SAMs and Enemy fighters are fairly easy to locate and destroy, while submarines and minefields are not.

    It would be interesting to use these to offload a MSC ship far off shore or even in another region (say docked in Greece while the fighting is in Iran), to keep the logistical ships out of range of enemy airstrikes or submarine threat areas.

  5. Sol you can count on one hand the number of time AMC lifters have done a unit move into forward area.

    TLAM an interesting concept but remember that MSC sealift ships carry cargo on the order of 10s of thousands of pounds to be discharged, so it will take many of event the largest aerial lifters to move much. In addition, much of what is on the MPS for insance is tactical equipment meaning the many sometimes large and over sized vehicles which won't fit in the above a/c.

    I like the really like the concept of strategic airlifting into a LZ without the need for a big airstrip. Questions are how much, now long, how many.

    BUT do not forget the "Tyranny of Tonnage". MPSrons have over 100,000 tons of cargo on them.