The blimp floats back into favor

The blimp is on its way back. Airship Industries, a British company, is the latest to join the airship craze. It says technology has made the blimp much safer and cheaper than fixed-wing aircraft.

The company envisages blimps being used for city-to-city travel in Europe and luxury travel for tourists wanting to see the sights from the air. The airship could also serve the military as an airborne early-warning station or as a coastal-patrol or submarine-surveillance tool. ''The airship has a very rosy future,'' says Keith Wickenden, company chairman.

The problem is that the huge airships have not had a rosy past. Public confidence in airships faded after the German Hindenburg zeppelin disintegrated in flames as it was landing in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937. Until recently blimps were written off commercially. But technology has changed that. Nonburning helium is used in place of highly flammable hydrogen. And Airship Industries has dispensed with the metal frames used in the Hindenburg, saying its new airship keeps its shape because the gas inside is under pressure. Several countries are building airships. In the United States, blimps are being considered for various duties, from US Coast Guard patrols to timber hauling.

Last week, Airship Industries floated $8.8 million worth of shares to finance production over the next year, and the company reports an encouraging response. The prototype, called the Skyship 500, is undergoing certification trials, and a second, being assembled in Canada, will go on a month's trial with the US Navy next month.

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