Giant cargo airships floated as a vision for the North


So you spent your summer waiting for a barge to resupply your community. Maybe it arrived, maybe it didn’t. Wouldn’t you rather wait for an airship?

Backers of the technology say the North’s isolated communities would benefit from low-emission cargo airships, gliding over the tundra regardless of the conditions on the ground.

No more freight delays during freeze-up and break-up. No more barges getting weathered out for the season. And the space-age sight of giant airships illuminated by the northern lights.

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In the Northwest Territories’ legislature on Thursday, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby tried to persuade the territorial government that this is the future – or at least, a possibility the NWT should test.

“We could become the leaders in an innovative industry,” said Nokleby.

That statement also tells you the industry hasn’t blossomed yet, despite decades of promotion from people convinced airships solve the problem of sending freight over vast northern distances in tricky conditions.

Multiple attempts have been made to get airships off the ground. (Sorry.)

In general, any article about them has to include two things: a reference to the Hindenburg disaster, a 1937 tragedy from which airships’ reputation still seems to be recovering, and some quotes from Barry Prentice, a Manitoba professor of supply chain management who is one of airships’ biggest proponents.

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“The viability of airships as a mode of transport does not need to be proven,” Prentice wrote in a paper for a think tank two months ago.

“The German Zeppelins were able to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a scheduled basis, cruising at 145 km/h. They offered a useful lift of 70 tonnes, configured as luxury accommodation for 72 passengers,” he added as an example, arguing that modern airships will lift heavier loads with barely any – or perhaps no – crew.

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Prentice says electric airships powered by hydrogen fuel cells fit the federal government’s transportation vision of the future, can carry maybe three tractor-trailer loads of freight, and need a “minimal” footprint in the North.

“Airships are a green technology. They will create new supply chains and stimulate employment and investment in the aerospace sector,” he wrote.

Wait, did he say hydrogen?

Hydrogen has long been banned in North American airships, but some designers of the new generation of airships that could service the North want that ban overturned.

They argue advances in technology mean decades-old fears about the use of hydrogen, given its flammability, are unfounded.

“In the United States, new airship regulations have been developed that do not restrict the role of hydrogen gas,” Nokleby told the legislature on Thursday, urging the NWT to allow “experimental, non-commercial test flights” while working with Ottawa to change the regulations.

Prentice says Europe is also looking at dropping its own hydrogen ban.

Hydrogen already has advocates as a northern fuel alternative for daily use, never mind powering airships. But some aviation industry experts have also suggested hydrogen is the easiest way to move a portion of the sector off fossil fuels in the near future.

It isn’t the only gas in the game, though.

Helium, long considered a safer, more benign option, is the basis for designs put forward by airship companies like Flying Whales, a French airship developer in existence for the past decade.

The problem with helium is finding it. The world has gone through four recognized helium shortages since 2006, making fuel scarcity a real issue. (If you don’t get your annual resupply in Sachs Harbour because the GNWT couldn’t source any helium, that’s not really an improvement on the barge being weathered out.)

Prototypes said to be on the way

Flying Whales does, however, seem to be one of the companies nearest to making modern freight airships a reality.

The company’s giant LCA60T – LCA stands for large-capacity airship, 60T means 60 tonnes – is 200 metres long and would be a stunning, low-flying addition to the northern sky.

In 2021, the province of Quebec gave Flying Whales $30 million to help it develop a flying prototype. The provincial government thinks Flying Whales’ airships could one day help serve its isolated northern region of Nunavik.

Overall, the company said in June, it has raised around $160 million. Construction of a prototype is expected to begin next year. (Other prototypes have already left the ground: British company Hybrid Air Vehicles test-flew its smaller Airlander 10 in 2016, although a model later collapsed in high wind, a deflation that the manufacturer said was a safety feature to minimize potential damage. A Spanish airline is reportedly planning to introduce passenger versions of the Airlander 10 later this decade.)

A Flying Whales diagram showcases a concept airship
A Flying Whales diagram showcases a concept airship.
A Hybrid Air Vehicles video documents the Airlander 10’s first flight in 2016.

In an unpublished manuscript, one researcher has suggested the presence of just one cargo airship in the North would rewrite the book on freight possibilities.

Imagine a base in Hay River, currently the NWT’s longstanding cargo hub as the northern end of a Canada-wide rail network and the southern end of the Mackenzie River barging operation.

Goods arrive in Hay River by road, rail, or air – Buffalo Airways uses Hay River as a staging point for a lot of freight heading into the North. In Hay River, you transfer the freight to an airship. That airship can’t travel fast, but it can travel far, meaning it can hit anywhere in the NWT and most of Yukon or Nunavut within 12 hours.

Suddenly there is a reliable freight route from anywhere in Canada to anywhere in the North within a day, if you really need that to happen.

Starting a conversation

At least, that’s the vision airship enthusiasts want you to see.

But this has been going on for at least the past 20 years and still, the next-generation airship industry is working to convince backers.

The latest event promoting the concept took place on Thursday – the Aviation Innovations Conference at a hotel in Mississauga, Ontario. Speakers at this conference? Barry Prentice opened it, Flying Whales presented, and an agenda suggests a virtual presentation was made by Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, the morning before she lobbied the territorial government in the legislature.

The conference continues on Friday, where presenters will include former Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern.

Similar waves of enthusiasm have reached the NWT in the past. Records show Bob McLeod received a presentation on airships while serving as the territory’s premier in 2016. In 2009, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley stated that “airship technology has come a long way and is now a viable economic alternative to expensive northern highways.” In 2011, now-defunct northern aviation group Discovery Air said it would buy 45 airships costing more than $40 million each – but changed its mind a year later.

Nokleby, who in February stated airships should be a priority over ice roads as the former industry grows and the latter faces the threat of climate change, brought industry minister Caroline Wawzonek to a recent meeting with airship experts.

Asked by Nokleby during Thursday’s legislature sitting for her thoughts, Wawzonek appeared to search for a tone of encouraging-but-non-committal.

“I don’t know that my thoughts are necessarily the ones that matter the most,” the minister hedged.

“It certainly was an interesting opportunity to learn about all the tremendous possibilities that could exist,” Wawzonek said of the meeting.

“As far as the viability, I think there are probably a number of challenges … but we can’t get anywhere if the conversations don’t start.”

On Friday, back at the Mississauga conference, Prentice will deliver a presentation on airship and cold-weather testing. That, Wawzonek said, is definitely an avenue the NWT is happy to explore.

“If there is going to be some viability testing,” the minister said, “we certainly want to be at the top of that list.”