Filling the Friendly Skies With Hot Air

Article By Adam Minter Photo credit: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images With China’s help, huge, balloon-like craft could revolutionize air transport. Just don’t call them blimps. When a massive helium-filled airship designed by Flying Whales, a French manufacturer, takes to the air for the first time in 2021, it won’t be against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, it’ll probably fly over Jingmen, a dusty farm and industrial town in central China where Flying Whales and state-owned China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., Ltd. (CAIGA) recently announced they’re planning to build an airship assembly line. Production should start in 2022 and could result in dozens of the giant ships — each twice as long as a Boeing Co. 747 — floating around the world. Eight decades after the Hindenburg disaster turned regulators, manufacturers and the public against lighter-than-air travel, the age of the airship (mind you, not blimps, which are non-rigid balloons that lose shape when they deflate) is back. These slow-moving giants won’t challenge modern aircraft for passengers. But, thanks to advancements in technologies including hybrid-electric power, they’re poised to offer a cheap, potentially low-carbon means of delivering cargo to and from regions of the world that lack basic infrastructure, including airstrips. China, with its ambitions to bring those areas into its economic orbit, will be a major customer for these new airships and a key player in shaping their future.