British dirigibles to soar out of western Canada

"The British are coming" with their magnificient lighter- than-air flying machines to set up shop here in Alberta. Indeed, the dirigibles are on the way.

A pioneering British firm is now building a 175-foot prototype with a lifting capacity of about 10 tons. It is scheduled to make its Canadian debut next summer.

If preliminary interest in the dirigibles shown by the Alberta government and private investors is borne out in the form of hard cash, to the tune of about $ 30 million and other considerations, then the West soon will become the workshop to build and service those majestic conveyances for the Americas -- all the 2, 000 or so said to be required in the next two decades for use mainly in the extraction industries.

This is not a false alarm anymore, or even a flight of fancy, experts here maintain. The albatross of the aviation industry of yesteryear, they say, actually could become a big buck operation of the high technology nature so assiduously sought by Alberta.

The huge cigar-shaped airships once thought to have been left behind in the modern quest for speed soon could be floating through the western and northern skies bearing heavy pay loads, cheaply. A British company, Airship Developments Ltd., this month is following up on earlier discussions with Albertans bullish on the inherent business prospects and the provincial government also keen on the idea of breathing new life into those aerial leviathans.

Helium is the key to the rebirth of the classical dirigibles. Alberta helium "cracked" from natural gas streams would provide the lifting capability. Unlike the flammable hydrogen used in earlier dirigibles, often with catastrophic consequences, helium is inert and harmless.

Andrew D. Miller, chairman of Airship Developments, said in an exclusive interview the AD600 model to be assembled in Canada to meet domestic airworthiness standards will fly from coast to coast.

The British will be using their largest prototype to date for the demonstration program, perhaps next July. Alberta is one of the few sources of commercial helium in the free world. The provincial government for years has sponsored research into the exploration and recovery of helium.

The Alberta government is likely to be one of the first customers of any local enterprise turning out the dirigibles. Logging, forestry, wildlife, and fire patrols, mapping, aerial surveillance, drilling rig transportation and resupply are seen as some of the main chores practically tailormade for airships. In fact, the heavier the load the better from the point of view of airship economics.

The $4 million demonstration model will cruise at an altitude of about 2,000 feet and at a speed of about 75 miles an hour. Virtually any size from a blimp to a giant airship is a feasible proposition given the light aluminum "backbone" of construction. Larger versions custom-made for a specific job, for example, might be airlifting the heavy and as a rule awkward hardware to oil-sands plants now needing expensive rail and road links through remote wilderness areas.

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