Lockheed Martin’s two-decade-long dream of developing a commercial hybrid airship is about to take off, literally, with initial parts for a prototype arriving over the next two months and first flight targeted for mid-2017.
The 280-ft.-long LMH-1 is expected to enter service in 2018 and is a big move for the company in more ways than one. If successful, the vehicle represents the first generation of a planned series of progressively larger hybrid airships that will culminate in the mid-2020s with 500-ton transports capable of competing with oceangoing vessels. The venture also represents Lockheed’s first significant foray into civil aviation since the 1980s, when it refocused on the defense and space markets following disappointing sales of the technically excellent but commercially flawed L-1011 TriStar airliner.
It is also a commercial first for Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the company’s secretive advanced development group that deals largely with classified U.S. defense programs. “This is virgin territory largely for the Skunk Works,” says Craig Johnston, business development manager. However, with increasing pressures on defense budgets, the Skunk Works more and more finds its expertise forming the phalanx of Lockheed Martin’s strategic push to expand into nonmilitary markets such as energy management and distribution, as well as commercial air transport.
The company applied for FAA certification in early 2012, receiving an approved new certification basis in 2015. The FAA’s proposed certification criteria are based on existing Transport Airship Requirements developed by Germany and the Netherlands (for the defunct CargoLifter airship) combined with Part 29 airworthiness standards for transport-category rotorcraft, in addition to elements from Parts 23, 25 and 27.
Working through Hybrid Enterprises, its Atlanta-based wholly owned reseller and aftermarket provider, Lockheed Martin is in the final stages of securing orders and letters of intent for about 12 LMH-1s from the mining and oil and gas exploration industries. Capable of carrying 47,000 lb. of payload and up to 19 passengers over ranges up to 1,400 nm at a cruise speed of 60 kt., the vehicle offers lower cargo transport costs to remote areas that road and current air alternatives cannot match. “We talked to the oil and gas and mining companies and asked if we did this would they use it, and the answer was an absolute ‘yes,’” says Grant Cool, Hybrid Enterprises’ chief operating officer.
Lockheed Martin is not the only believer in the technology and welcomes the market stimulus from Hybrid Air Vehicles, the U.K.-based developer of the competing Airlander 10. The Airlander prototype is being readied for flight and is expected to make an appearance at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. “We have plenty of market space; there are no issues,” says Johnston. “We know for sure there is an initial market for 12, but ultimately there will be many hundreds over the next decade, and they will be spread all over the world,” adds Cool.
They are priced at $40 million per unit, and Lockheed plans to build up quickly to an assembly rate of one per month. “I’d like to say we are in the red zone,” says Johnston, using an American football metaphor to describe how close the program is to a “touchdown”—full-scale go-ahead. “The real decision related to the start is turning on the supply chain.” Boyd adds that “the construction cycle is unbelievably short: Once all the parts are put together in one place the assembly time is about five weeks, though we only have one spot, for one at a time.” Later development of the much larger follow-on variants will likely require assembly of a dedicated production site, he adds.
Unlike a conventional airship that relies on lighter-than-air gas for 100% aerostatic lift, the LMH-1 derives 80% of its lift from the buoyancy of helium gas and 20% from the aerodynamic lift generated by the shape of the tri-lobed vehicle and the thrust of its four propeller engines. The airship envelope has 1,285,000-cu.-ft. displacement—compared to 120,000 cu. ft. in the P791—and is 78 ft. tall and 148 ft. wide. The four thrust-vectoring thrusters will be powered by unspecified 300-hp V6 diesel engines driving three-blade, 9-ft.-dia. propellers. Lockheed, which has yet to finalize the engine selection, says the likely choice is “a certified aviation engine derived from the automotive industry.”
Thrust-vectoring and motion-of-control surfaces on the four tails of the LMH-1 are handled through a vehicle management system using electronic fly-by-wire (FBW) controls. “The full axis FBW system controls four tails, the four thrusters, the throttles and the pitch of the blades. In addition, each of the propulsors gimbals, so it is a complex flight control system [FCS] and algorithm controlling up to 16 different things,” says Kent Trenkle, LMH-1 systems engineering integration, test and certification lead.
An air cushion landing system (ACLS) based on the P791 system will be used for landing and ground operations on all surface types, including water. Unlike the P791’s four-pad ACLS, the LMH-1 system will incorporate two main pads aft and a smaller, forward-mounted ACLS pad. The vehicle is designed to land aircraft-like on the two main pads first and then on the “nose leg” positioned pad, located beneath the forward end of the 150-ft.-long passenger- and cargo-carrying gondola.