Dirigibles measuring up to a third of a mile in length and carrying payloads of up to a million pounds may be one answer to the problem of moving masses of freight efficiently over long distances, according to Adam Starchild, president of Minerva Consulting Group Inc., New York.
In a deepening worldwide energy crunch, the new dirigible could use safe, plentiful helium to provide lift.
As a portent of what could happen in coming years, both Britain and West Germany have begun to build small airships that could easily be forerunners of the giants envisioned by Mr. Starchild and others.
Little, in fact, remains to delay the activation of existing plans except the approval and cooperation of regulatory bodies and the organization of farsighted investor groups which are interested in exploring a new, exciting phase of air travel.
''Public relations and the economics of production would then become resolvable problems,'' says Mr. Starchild, a member of the World Future Society and editor of ''Business in 1990: A Look to the Future.''
The dimensions of the airship of the future boggle the imagination. Because of advancing technology, this dirigible could measure as much as 1,500 feet from nose to tailfins. An airship 1,200 feet in length would not, in today's technological context, present a major challenge.
The aerial workhorse of the future could help solve many of the inefficiencies that beset modern transport systems -- highways crowded with trucks burning scarce fuel, trains that can operate only where tracks will carry them, and aircraft that can move only between huge airports.
The airship would solve those problems by moving up to a million pounds of cargo in a single load.
''We can today realistically envision lighter-than-air craft of staggering dimensions carrying supplies, workers, and heavy equipment to landing areas cut out of jungles,'' Mr. Starchild says. ''These airships could also carry goods and passengers between established ports or landing sites in or near major cities.
''It would not be stretching the imagination to visualize 400 passengers stepping out of a luxury dirigible boasting a million cubic feet of interior space and a cruising speed of 50 to 120 miles an hour.
''The plans or ideas appearing to date have generated thinking on many kinds of airships. These range from conventionally driven types of nuclear-powered craft that could circle the earth repeatedly without refueling to solar-power 'sunships' that would draw power from the sun.''
Aside from reduced noise and air pollution, Mr. Starchild says, the dirigible could offer advantages over existing methods of moving goods and passengers in at least four areas, among them speed and capacity. The mammoth airship, for example, could move materials with greater speed than either trucks or ships. The lighter-than-air craft could also provide greater potential capacity than either trucks or freight cars hauled on railroad tracks.
Reduced use of conventional fuels means that economy must be regarded as a third potential advantage in an age that could see the nearly total exhaustion of the world's supplies of fossil fuels.
Flexibility ranks as a final but crucial factor favoring the development of giant airships. Whatever their size, these freight wagons of the future could land at almost any site offering a substantial expanse of level ground.
The technological advances that could make the airship a reality, according to Mr. Starchild, include metallurgical developments and computer technology.
In metallurgy, high-strength, corrosion-resistant alloys offer the perfect building blocks for the dirigible's hull structure. Computerization makes it possible to monitor with great precision both the state of the weather and the overall condition of the ship.
The new dirigibles would have a ''skin'' stretched over the traditional basic framework. New tough, durable nylon fabrics now in existence make it possible to cover the framework safely with a single layer. Helium offers safety while overcoming the problems that once accompanied the use of highly flammable hydrogen.
The helium that provides lift would also eliminate the need for the powerful engines that give thrust to today's heavier-than-air planes.
''While the dirigible could conceivably revolutionize modern transportation systems,'' Mr. Starchild says, ''it would encounter some general problems of its own.''
Among these, he reports, is safety. In view of modern technological developments, however, including new fuels and materials, airships should compile safety records at least equal to those of airplanes. Many authorities believe the airship would be safer than the plane.
Too, it might be difficult to design and construct a hangar large enough to provide facilities in which to build an airship that is one-third of a mile long. Landing areas might have to be very extensive if several airships are to use them at one time.
Another problem centers on the need to give an airship the capability of taking on and releasing ballast during unloading and loading operations. That, Mr. Starchild says, represents a technical question whose solution could possibly increase the airship's ability to serve remote or underdeveloped areas.
A moored airship also has to be free to swing with the wind. Experts have suggested that fixed turntables or parked mobile equipment would provide such freedom, although the cost is expected to be high.
None of the obstacles, however, have dimmed the glow in the eyes of the futurists.