By Gianfranco Ghiringhelli
As the potential Chief Pilot and Director of Operations of what would have become the first commercial airship operation in the U.S.—outside of Goodyear—I don’t see a broad application for commercial viability, which in a way is a bit sad. I think airships will always have a niche market and maintain a fascination for anyone who sees one floating across the sky.
In the 1980s, I trained on Airship Industries Skyship 500 and 600 series, obtaining both FAA and British licenses. The proposed scope of our operation was advertising; similar to Goodyear—but available to the general public. The plan would have made use of changeable “Logo” banners affixed to the sides for daytime and a programmable “Night Sign” composed of a series of lights, for night operations.
The idea was to sell ad space at rates for minute/hour/day/week, etc. I was involved solely in determining the operational feasibility. The financial aspect was handled by others.
Ultimately the project was abandoned but not because of operational constraints. The two parties involved could not come to terms regarding lease/purchase/partnership.
From an operational standpoint, airships are extremely labor intensive, requiring large crews to handle docking and undocking, safety standby while the ship is airborne and constant monitoring while on the mast.
Being lighter than air, airships are extremely sensitive to winds and thermals. Flying over varied terrain subjected to thermals can be extremely demanding on the pilots and is not a pleasant experience. However, flying over vast expanses of water or in cooler, stable air can be quite pleasant, offering some fantastic views.
I had the opportunity to fly extensively in Great Britain and Europe, as well as most of the U.S. I was on the crew that brought the ship from Weeksville, North Carolina, to California. That’s a cross-country for the record books. We were challenged with landings at Demming and Lordsburg, each requiring adjustments to weight and helium.
Most of what I encountered during my time with airships was a lot of theoretical operation by people with little to no actual experience with airships. One of the most common questions I was asked about was logging using airships with long lines. That’s a bad idea on all counts. First and foremost, you do not want to operate in mountains. The winds and thermals will eventually tear you up. As for lifting, the only way to lift would be to jettison ballast. Not something I would want to do.
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