Friday April 10, 2015

Iron Maiden's frontman on the future of Zeppelin(s)

Bruce Dickinson is the frontman for Iron Maiden, a part-time pilot and investor in the Airlander project.

Bruce Dickinson is the frontman for Iron Maiden, a part-time pilot and investor in the Airlander project. (Hybrid Air Vehicles)

Listen 14:35

When the Hindenburg blew up in 1937, with it went the dreams for airship travel on a large scale. But that could soon change. In a giant hangar in Bedford, England sits an airship called the Airlander 10. It's the world's largest aircraft, a massive hybrid of a plane, balloon and hovercraft. It's not as fast as an airplane, but its proponents say it's greener, can fly for days at a time, and can land and take off from any flat area. They also say it's the future of air travel. 

Hybrid Air Vehicles, the company that manufactured the Airlander, has received millions of dollars from the EU and the U.K. government, and raised hundreds of thousands through crowdfunding and individual investors like Bruce Dickinson, frontman of Iron Maiden and part-time pilot. He spoke to Brent about why he contributed over $400,000 to the airship project. 

BB: What is it like to stand next to the Airlander?

BD: Well, it's jaw-dropping actually. I never cease to be amazed at it. I mean, it's in an enormous hangar that was built to house an aircraft about three times its size that was one of the giant airships of the '30s. It's almost more imposing because of it because you got some kind of scale behind it so it is very, very impressive.


Mike Durham, the Technical Director at Hybrid Air Vehicles, admires the helium-filled 'Airlander' aircraft in a giant airship shed. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Can you describe for us what it looks like? It seems to have three hulls on it...

Yeah. In actual fact, the vehicle itself with its engines and everything but with no payload and without fuel basically weighs nothing. And that's because it's inflated with helium. So that's one of the reasons [why] it's so efficient. What makes it workable and manageable, and flyable by two pilots and independently maneuverable on the ground, is as soon as you put stuff on it it's heavier than air. So we can take off vertically because we've got four engines - a bit like the Harrier Jump Jet vectors the thrust - and, in fact, we can take an under-slung load like a helicopter can and we can lower things and do all the stuff that big helicopters can do but we can take massive loads in it. We can take an under-slung load of 35 tons. I mean, that's a locomotive.

When I hear you talk about it, you sound like I fan.  

Of course I'm a fan. That's why I invested in it. It's a game-changing piece of aviation technology. It's not going to replace the airplane, it's not going to replace the helicopter, but it's a hybrid that fits right between in a really cool niche where it can do things that neither of those two forms of aerial transportation can do. And it can do it very efficiently and in a very ecologically-friendly and green way. 


Bruce Dickinson (R), the lead singer of the band Iron Maiden, sits at the controls on the flight deck of the helium-filled Airlander aircraft. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

You've put a lot of your own money into this. Tell us about the conversation you had with your wife when you told her you wanted to invest in an airship. 

(Laughs.) Well, I said, look, you know we've got a few bucks sitting in the bank account. How much do you think we could afford to burn if I took it out now and I took took a whole lot of bucks and burnt it in the street. (Laughs.) We came to a number. And I said, well, I'm thinking of investing in this project. And I described it to her, and she went, 'That's amazing!' She goes, 'That's a visionary thing.' And if you invest in something that has a vision, it's a bit like Elon Musk with the electric car. You know, with the Tesla? 


And years ago people went 'You must be crazy. Nobody's going to buy one of those.'

But everybody might drive an electric car one day. Not everybody is going to have an Airlander.

No, of course not. I mean the market for these vehicles we estimate - actually, it wasn't us that estimated the market for this vehicle, it was one of the two major aerospace manufacturers in the world. I'm not going to tell you which one but they estimated the market to be between eight hundred and one thousand vehicles which is pretty healthy.


(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

So if I buy one, if I need one, what do I need it to do? What is the point of me owning one? 

Let's take an immediate issue. You're familiar with the ice roads and ice road truckers and all that stuff?

Yes, of course. 

Not necessary anymore. You don't need a road, don't need anything. You want to resupply a community in the remote areas of Canada where there's oil and oil sands and all the rest of it? And, by the way, you want to put the pipelines in there as well and you want to lay the pipelines? And you want to deliver the whole thing and take out the trash? One of these vehicles does it for you. Doesn't need a road, doesn't need a runway, doesn't need any facilities other than a flat piece of snow. 

Sounds like you've already thought about selling it to a lot of Canadians. 
A lot of Canadians have already thought about buying it. If you talk to people who do logistics, they get this in a heartbeat. It's point to point. I mean, for example, people worry about food miles now with fruit and vegetables. The economies of many African countries depend upon being able to export their fruit and veg to Europe. Something like 80% of the fruit that gets put on ships is dead and wasted by the time it arrives. If they put it on the old freighter airplanes that they used, they're not very ecologically friendly and it's expensive to begin with. But with an Airlander, okay we don't go as fast as an airplane, but we fly for 26 hours non-stop. It amounts to the same thing. And the point is that arriving at six in the morning at an international airport, you've then got to put it on a truck that you're then going to drive to the processing plant, and god forbid you've got to get it in the rainy season in Africa off the farm and to an airport. The Airlander lands on the farm, you load the stuff in, you take off and you land in ... wherever.


(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

People, unfortunately, when the think of airships or they see something this large they think of the Hindenburg disaster which happened all the way back in 1937.

Yes they do. 

What makes the Airlander safe?

Well, first of all, the Hindenburg as people probably realize was filled with highly inflammable hydrogen gas. The kind that people are comfortably now putting in their cars. So, in actual fact, you're driving around in a vehicle full of gasoline which is infinitely more likely to catch fire than an Airlander. Our vehicle is full of inert helium which provides the lighter than air bit of the hybrid technology.

So it won't blow up.

It won't blow up, no it won't blow up. And people ask, 'Oh my god, what happens if it has a puncture?' Well, I can assure you that we had some experience with this - the company - when they built low altitude blimps for the military. And somebody said, 'Well, what happens if somebody comes in with a machine gun and fills it full of holes?' Well, I can tell you. While they were still waiting in the hangar, they did just that. They blasted it full of holes with machine guns and they waited for it to deflate. Well, it was still hanging there 18 hours later. 

Were you there when they shot it with machine guns? 
No, I wasn't. I've seen the film though. No this was like fifteen years ago.

Bruce, you've flown Iron Maiden around the world on tour, you're a pilot. Do you think you might do that in a blimp one day?
Oh, I've already put my dibs in for a plan as to what would be great. I mean, there's a long way to go before we start qualifying pilots on this vehicle, but it should not be any more complicated than qualifying a person to fly a regular airplane like a turbo prop airliner or a jet airliner. It's exactly the same process. What I would love to do, personally, I would love to fly the airplane round the world twice, from pole to pole. North Pole to South Pole and all the way back up again. Then just for giggles, lets do it round the equator so we could break every airship record there's ever been. But more important that that, we could fly it a lot over land, over the Amazon, over the most extraordinary parts of this planet. Where we can go in this vehicle - we can go down into the hover about five feet above the treetops and just drift on minimal, minimal power chugging around. It's kind of like Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, except our sea happens to be the air. In fact, you can think of the Hybrid Air Vehicle as being a flying submarine. If that's too much for you, we're buoyant, and we're just buoyant in a different medium than the sea. 

That would be an amazing sight to see. That would be a terrific movie. You know, people are going to start thinking you're a member of Zeppelin... 

Well, there you are. You see, we had Eddie - we had 'Ed Force One' when it was the 757, maybe this is the Ed Zeppelin. 

Bruce Dickinson thank you for talking to us. 

That's great. Thank you very much.  


Bruce Dickinson sits at the controls on the flight deck of the helium-filled Airlander aircraft in a giant airship shed. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) (Getty Images)