Monday, November 1, 2010

Will the jet plane be a historical aberration?

Oh, yes, I'm going to open a can of worms.

This comes from the (rather buried) news that NASA has designed a heavy airship with a top speed of 100 knots. That's fast enough to get from the west coast to Hawaii overnight.

And?

Airships use considerably less fuel than heavier than air craft. They can, in theory at least, be electric powered. They do not need runways, but only sufficient open space in which to touch down and be moored.

For the purposes of carrying all but the most urgent of cargo, airships are fine. Training crew to fly them would not be hard. It might be possible to use a design that allowed the airship to simply drop its cargo pod and carry on...on short trips where refueling is not needed. A helium filled airship is no more of a fire risk than a jet, possibly less.

But...airships are 'too slow' for the demands of modern air travel, surely?

I'd make a counter proposal. For example, overnight to Hawaii. On a plane, with narrow seats and screaming babies (unless you pay a huge premium for first class), that would indeed be a nightmare. But what if that overnight to Hawaii was in a well appointed sleeper car, similar to a railway Pullman. What if the engines are only a quiet hum.

Hrm. First night of a honeymoon, maybe? For tourists, sacrificing speed for comfort is not out of the question. And if there's internet on board, the businessman can keep working in a lounge, then retire to his bunk and wake up refreshed close to the destination.

But what if you're in that much of a hurry that it's simply out of the question?

Well.

I doubt we're that far from feasible suborbital/ballistic passenger transportation.

This, of course, leaves very little space for the traditional jet...and that's probably a good thing.