Airships

Orders of the Day — Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th May 1972.

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11.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Raymond Fletcher Mr Raymond Fletcher , Ilkeston

It is my pleasant duty to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the Dispatch Box in much the same sense of trepidation as the commander of the Zeppelin LZ 37 welcomed Lieutenant Warneford, of the Royal Navy, to the vicinity of his airship. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, that was the first occasion on which a Zeppelin was shot down by a British plane.

This debate was originally intended to take place, subject to my sucess in the ballot, immediately after a spectacular demonstration of part of my argument. The Goodyear airship "Europa" was scheduled to fly down the Thames on 5th May to participate in the Europe Day ceremony by flying the flag of Europe. All this had been amicably arranged between the Goodyear company, the Parliamentary Airships Group, of which I have the honour to be chairman, the Europe Day Committee, headed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas), and the Minister for Trade.

Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice and Members of Parliament "gang aft agley" and the "Europa" will not be ready for flying again before the end of next month. This mishap no more invalidates the case for the airship as such than a failure to moor properly the yacht "Morning Cloud" would invalidate the Prime Minister's right to occupy No. 10 Downing Street. The important thing about the "Europa" mishap was that the airship did not catch fire and that the expensive damage was done to the complicated system of 8,000 separately wired, computer-controlled lights that make it an advertising ship and to the equally complicated gear which makes it into a flying television studio. The ship, as the hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware, has now been reflated with helium and is almost ready to fly again.

This brings me to my first argument for a re-examination of the flying ship, to give it its accurate name—the translation "airship" is not an accurate translation of the German term Flug-schiff. When the first airship era came to an end with the wreck of the "Hindenburg," hydrogen was the only lifting gas available to non-American airshipmen. Hydrogen is not only highly inflammable, it is, when mixed with air, very explosive. It was this factor that caused most of the disasters, and that is all most people remember of the airship era of the 1920s and 1930s—although it is important to see even these disasters in perspective.

Six hundred large airships were actually built and flown. Of these, 150-odd were large rigids, like the R100, the R101 and the famous "Graf Zeppelin". But only those that ended in flames are remembered, although I am glad to say that the campaign for the airship, to which I have made a modest contribution, has influenced at least one firm to print on its beer mats a potted history of the famous "Graf Zeppelin". I quote from one, probably the first time that any hon. Member has ever quoted from such a source: In its nine years' continuous service, the Graf Zeppelin completed 590 flights, including 146 ocean crossings.…In 1929, Dr. Hugo Eckener made a 21,255-mile world flight in 20 days, including a 6,980-mile non-stop record between Friedrichshafen and Tokyo. I am not arguing for a revival of the passenger-carrying Zeppelin in the age of the Concorde, which I support as keenly as the Minister. I argue that had helium been available in the 1930s in the quantities in which it is available today, thanks to NASA's Apollo programme, our own R100, the airship that everyone seems to forget, would have been the most successful commercial airship of all, designed as it was by the incomparable Sir Barnes Wallis. Helium is available, and the fire hazard in flying ships has been phased out.

But what do we use such large ships for if we do build them? The simple answer is: for certain types of cargo where the cost-benefit ratio is most favourable. Machine tools, for example, are getting larger and larger. The cost of transporting them, given our congested roads and ports, is getting higher and higher. Among the vast mass of material I have sent the Minister, there is mentioned a typical case. It concerns a 700-ton load that was shipped from Antwerp to Birkenhead as 3 pieces and then moved by road to Stanlow, about 17 miles way. The total cost of the whole operation was over £70,000. The Airfloat Transport Company, the details of whose project are with the Minister, maintains that its ship, designed by Dr. Edwin Mowforth of the University of Surrey, could do the same job at a total cost of £31,500—that is, less than half of the sea-road cost. There are many more similar examples in the documentation I have sent to the Minister.

Yet the moving of such cargoes in no way exhausts the potentialities of the flying ship as a freight carrier. A firm of British consultants, Aerospace Developments, has been working on a project to use a large airship to move natural gas from its sources to its users. Here again, the cost advantages are enormous. Liquifying this gas and making special sea-going vessels to carry it is a very expensive business. The shore installations, moreover, are constantly running the risk of being confiscated by this or that revolutionary coup. Yet the research and development costs of making an airship to do this job would, on the most pessimistic estimates, be no more than about £18 million. Compare this with the £200 million required to develop a prototype of a new nuclear reactor.

Other countries are thinking along these lines. In the October, 1971, issue of Natural Gas, for example, it is stated: "Will natural gas be transported by air?An amazing proposal for the transport of natural gas by air was made during the negotiations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the U.S.S.R. about the delivery of natural gas. It was said that plans are being prepared which could lead, by 1980 or even earlier, to dispensing with the construction of expensive pipelines for the transport of natural gas. Applications submitted to the Patent Office of the Federal Republic of Germany show that plans for a transport system are being elaborated, based on the 'lighter-than-air' properties of natural gas.It is suggested that modern processes for the production of plastics in connection with high-strength synthetic textiles make it feasible to transport natural gas by means of semi-rigid, heat-sealed plastic containers measuring several hundred feet in length and breadth over ten thousand miles and more after filling them with many million cubic feet of natural gas and providing an adequate propelling system. Speeds in the so-called lower atmosphere would be between 60 and 80 miles/hr, i.e. several times the velocity of natural gas flowing in pipelines. Furthermore, it has been proved by tests that according to present technical know-how the danger of fire and explosion is practically nonexistent. The Germans, and one German in particular who happens to be a friend of mine, are already building and selling airships, as the Minister is aware. In fact, they are selling some straight off the drawing board. It has also been reliably reported and not on this occasion denied by the Soviet Embassy that the Soviet Government have recently sanctioned the construction of two ships, one a rigid and the other a non-rigid blimp-type airship. In fact there is, as the 10 pages devoted to airships in the current issue of Janes' Freight Carriers shows, an airship race beginning. There were only two pages in the corresponding issue of Janes in 1971. Because of this airship race, I want this country to be in the lead. We can build the more powerful engines which are now required to control these larger craft. We have vast experience in the use of light-weight materials. Above all, we have that invaluable asset, the construction facilities and sheds at Carding-ton which are unique in Europe.

Yet I am not asking the Minister to roll over in rapture and sanction an airship construction programme tomorrow morning. He is well aware that I intend to raise no such demand tonight. But I ask him, first, to establish creative contact with the firms already doing the basic research. Secondly, to such airship projects as pass the cost-benefit test I ask for exactly the same kind of treatment as is now given to other aeronautical projects. It may involve launching aid. It may involve no more than using existing research establishments already under Government control. In my view, the documentation in his possession indicates what is required and, though I hate to say this, there is much more available. However, I have no intention of dropping it on the hon. Gentleman's head—in the immediate future, at any rate. But my main request to him and to this House is that airship men cease to be regarded as specialists in nostalgia. We are not. We are offering an opportunity to Britain to take a lead in applying a new technology to an old form.

Even in this, we are not unique. As everyone knows, the rockets now enabling the Americans to explore the outer reaches of the solar system are based on a construction that was in use 700 years before Graf Zeppelin built the first flying ship and 750 years before the first aeroplane took to the air. So in going backwards, one often is going forwards. I ask the Minister to give me some encouragement tonight.

11.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Crouch Mr David Crouch , Canterbury

I am grateful for the opportunity to make one point that the hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) omitted to make. When the Airship Association was formed, I was struck not by the airship men and engineers who turned up to the first meeting to lend their blessing to the idea again but by the great number of very serious young persons and students who were interested to see whether there was really anything in this idea being reborn again.

From the Government side of the House, all that I seek to do is to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that he will take the suggestion that there is something in this means of transportation as seriously as those young persons took it. It has to be examined very carefully from a cost-benefit point of view. The argument has been put very clearly tonight that there is, perhaps, something in this. We cannot afford to dismiss it, and I hope that my hon. Friend will not do so.

Another point is that an airship does not necessarily need to operate from an airfield. It is impossible to use airships to transport freight to otherwise inaccessible places. In under-developed countries faced with a disaster, and so on, often we have to transport aid and help to people in as quick a way as possible. Often this entails landing in difficult places. The airship provides an answer to this problem.

11.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) for his brief intervention. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) for the courtesy that he has shown to me, and for the copious documentation, even if it is not exhaustive, with which he provided me before the debate. The hon. Gentleman said that going backwards often meant going forwards. I am sure that airship enthusiasts wnow that the converse is often true. I am particularly sorry about the disappointment which overtook him regarding the occasion on which he had hoped to be able to make his speech. But this is something which in some senses has been a feature of airships.

Nevertheless, I think that we are all agreed that we have had a very useful if necessarily brief debate. It is generally agreed, in the House and outside it, that whatever the brief but spectacular past of the airship may have been, and although some may characterise it as a gallant failure and ahead of its time in some respects, the concept still remains as one which stirs people's imaginations and memories. It certainly stirs mine. I remember as a boy seeing the Graf Zeppelin making its tour of the south coast of Britain. I did not know until many years later that its motive was a curiosity about those strange towers decorating our south coast, which we later discovered to be the precursors of radar. The Zeppelin's motives were not at all commercial.

The basic problems which proved fatal to the earlier generation of large rigid airships were those of safety and controllability. The hydrogen-filled European airships suffered disasters which are still remembered and which put an end for the time being to development on this side of the Atlantic. However, in the years since then, a long line of comparatively small non-rigid airships filled with non-inflammable helium have shown that it is possible to operate such craft safely, if not entirely without incident.

During the great period of cost-analysis economics which the 1939–45 war provided us with, there was less development of rigid airships than one might have expected, granted that helium had become available. Nevertheless, helium has certainly solved one problem, and there have been considerable advances in other respects which are of advantage to the airship. We have large gas turbine engines suitable for craft several times bigger than anything that has yet been constructed and new materials for gas bags and structures. We have a much better knowledge of the structure of the atmosphere and we can calculate more accurately the stresses that can be imposed on this kind of craft. All these improvements could assist designers in producing new large rigid airships, and it is a measure of the progress in this regard that we can have a serious debate in the House on the future possibilities of the airship.

Nevertheless, numerous problems remain. I hope that the hon. Member will take it as a compliment of his advocacy if I seem to stress these, and particularly what seem to be the most serious obstacles which must be faced. One of the first of these is safety of operation. The craft now being proposed may be a quarter of a mile long and almost 100 yards in diameter. The safe operation of vehicles of this size near the ground, especially when loading or unloading cargo, or when crossing air lanes used by private aircraft and helicopters, possibly at night, clearly must be considered very seriously. They would be operating generally in totally controlled airspace, and we should have to look very seriously at the possibilities of collision. Those who are interested in this matter would be well advised to consult the Civil Aviation Authority about this aspect of the problem in order to establish what the Authority's attitude might be.

Furthermore, it is now over 40 years since the regulatory authorities were called upon to certificate a rigid airship for operation. This inevitably means that a great deal of work would have to be done in re-establishing the art of providing airworthiness certificates for such new craft. Again this is a matter for the Civil Aviation Authority. It is aware of the possibility of being called upon to do work here and it would be well that the matter should be discussed further with it, if only to establish whether there was a need for the technical strength and fatigue tests on the airframe which we are used to associating with more conventional aircraft.

There are also the technical problems such as control of lift as the weight of the ship changes, for which various solutions have been proposed but on which there is disagreement among the proponents of the airship. Quite a lot of money will have to be spent before we can arrive at final solutions to all the technical difficulties.

But even when it has been shown that a large rigid airship is a practical engineering proposition, problems remain to be overcome before it can be established as having a commercial niche in the transport sphere or elsewhere. The hon. Member for Ilkeston mentioned that the "Europa" was an advertising ship. I am not absolutely certain where it comes under Section 7 (1) of the Civil Aviation (Licensing Act), 1960, but this is something he might like to look into. I am advised that the use of the airship for advertising, which is a common practice on the other side of the Atlantic, is one which would meet with considerable difficulty in this country if it were to remain within the law. But I merely indicate that this is something to be examined.

The principal task for which the airship has been asserted as being suitable is the carriage of large, indivisible loads. This is an attractive proposition. If we could develop a craft which could treat as normal the kind of load which road users in this country curse under the designation of abnormal, it would find favour with a large number of us. There are obvious advantages in a device which Could pick up cargo and transport it to its destination overseas or on some inaccessible site with the relative ease which an airship appears to be able to command.

But all the potential uses of the airship are subject to the normal laws of economics and it has yet to be shown that the costs of design, research and development and construction will lead to a sufficiently attractive operating cost to ensure there will be enough work to keep the final vehicle fully utilised and make it commercially viable. I am not saying that this is impossible. Preliminary estimates have been published in some quarters, but a great deal more serious and detailed planning is required to make a convincing case for the economic practicability of the airship as a cargo carrier.

Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Walthamstow East

Is it possible for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to give any idea of the sort of estimated cost he has in mind?

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

I do not think that this is for me to do. All I can say is that among the calculations sent to me by the hon. Member for Ilkeston are those which indicate a figure of £5 million or thereabouts as the capital cost for one such craft.

But while this is so, my Department has been watching closely the recent resurgence of interest in the airship and we have been in touch with certain of the companies working in this area. If others want to get in touch with the Department it will be glad to hear from them and it is willing to arrange for technical advice by the appropriate experts. There are experts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough who might be of assistance in this matter. We would naturally expect industry to carry out the feasibility studies which are neded to show the commercial viability of a large rigid airship.

Finally, there is the question which was raised by the hon. Gentleman of launching aid. I do not wish to be discouraging but although there is no reason in principle that launching aid for a new civil airship should not be considered on the same terms as for aeroplanes, I find it difficult to say that any firm commitment to launching aid would be appropriate at present.

Launching aid was originally designed to enable manufacturers to raise the very large sums of money that were needed to establish new civil aircraft and aero engines in production, to do the necessary tooling up to cover themselves for the considerable expenditure to which they made a contribution, and with the intention, not necessarily always realised, that the money should be recovered by means of a levy on each of the articles sold over a production run of pre-deter-mined or forecast length.

With airships the position is different, as it is at present envisaged. The proposals that I think the hon. Gentleman knows of refer to a relatively small number of craft which would be built by the operating company. It must be clear that the capital sums involved, being considerably less than are involved in the manufacture of conventional aircraft, should be within the reach of the entrepreneur, either from his own resources or from the market to which he has access. There should not be the demand for the sophisticated tooling up that is required for some advanced aircraft projects, and there must by definition be a reasonable expectation of profitability at the outset. If it can be established as the hon. Gentleman contends—I do not wish to be doubting about this—that there is a place and a profit for airships in operation in today's conditions, this fact in itself should eliminate the need for governmental funds to get the necessary capital to launch on the venture.

I must leave it to the hon. Gentleman to consider the obstacles as I have defined them, and no doubt, as he is an able advocate of his cause, to produce a convincing rebuttal of them in due course. With the documentation which he has to study, it may take him a little while. I look forward very much to a return discussion with him on a suitable occasion. I hope that on that occasion at least we shall find that the airship in which he has the immediate and direct interest has not lost its moorings and had to be rescued by the fire brigade from blocking the public road.

11.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

I thank the Minister for his reply. He has identified the difficulties, which is partly his job.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) on raising the matter. I hope it will be possible to do a little intramural work to consider the possibility of support through the Industry Bill or in some other way, because I believe the airship has something else behind it, the support of a large number of people who feel that it went wrong earlier but that it now meets a possible environmental need and also needs in developing countries and elsewhere.

The Minister is right to be cautious. I read in some of his phrases the imprint of Treasury thinking. He will not find himself alone if he gives a little support as far as he can intra-murally and in other ways to get this method of transportation, with all its many advantages, launched back into public thinking, because it is only by doing that that the market upon which ultimately it will depend can ever be created.

My hon. Friend has played a notable part, and I thank the Minister for being so helpful in his answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.