It’s May 11, 1926, and a giant airship, the Norge (meaning Norway), has just been unhooked from its mast at one of the world’s most remote settlements, Ny-Ålesund, in the Svalbard archipelago.
This cluster of rocky, barren islands, closer to the North Pole than to the Norwegian mainland, is the natural jump-off point for any expeditions venturing into the frozen expanses of the Arctic and this is precisely what those on board the Norge have set to do.
Leading the 16-strong expedition are none other than the most celebrated polar explorer of the time, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 became the first man to reach the South Pole, Umberto Nobile, the celebrated Italian airship engineer who designed the Norge, and American coal heir and adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth.
If Amundsen’s earlier conquest of the South Pole had involved a months-long, grueling march on dog-sleds, this new expedition would be a much shorter affair. The party, however, would have to content themselves with flying over the North Pole rather than setting foot on it.
The trip turned out to be a big success.
The Norge arrived at the North Pole less than a day after departing Ny-Ålesund, making those on board the first people to have ever verifiably reached that geographical landmark. Far from calling the expedition over, the Norge then pushed forward across the Arctic Ocean until it touched down in Teller, Alaska, a couple of days later.
It’s not hard to imagine the sense of exhilaration and accomplishment the crew must have felt the moment they set foot in North America. Yet within a decade, Amundsen would be dead, swallowed by the Arctic, and the airship era pretty much over – or so it seemed.
Thrills and adventure
Airships have seen very limited action since the 1930s. Replaced by fixed wing aircraft as a means of transportation, lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles were confined to a handful of niche uses. But the concept was not entirely forgotten.
About a decade ago, a British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) developed a new-generation large scale airship concept as part of a US military research program. At the time, the Pentagon studied the possibilities that airships could offer to support troops in Afghanistan. Shifting priorities meant the project was canceled in 2012, though, and HAV started looking for new uses for its technology.
What came out of it was the Airlander, a modern reinterpretation of the airship that is, by some measures, the world’s largest aircraft.
These developments in the airship space caught the attention of Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, a Swedish commercial pilot with an entrepreneurial streak.
The idea was to bring back the thrill and sense of adventure of the days of airship exploration, but with the comforts and safety afforded by 21st-century technology.
The result is OceanSky Cruises, a startup firm that offers luxury air cruises on airships, starting with a route to the North Pole and back.
And, while OceanSky has not officially confirmed its choice of airship yet, HAV’s Airlander has been touted as, so far, the only candidate for this mission.
Airships have some characteristics that make them particularly suited to the sort of venture Lawaczeck has in mind. They have long endurance – which means they can remain airborne for very long periods of time – they can be fitted with truly spacious cabins and, crucially, they are fuel-efficient.
“Airships can carry payloads comparable to that of some airliners, but use only a tiny fraction of the energy to transport them over the same distance,” explains the Swedish entrepreneur, who used to fly commercial aircraft for Scandinavian airline SAS and other carriers.
The tradeoff is that airships are much slower, but this too can be turned into an advantage.
Since one of the highlights of such trips will be the possibility of spotting Arctic fauna from the sky. This is where the airship’s capability to fly at extremely slow speeds and very close to the ground will come in handy.
“We can go down to 300 feet, even 100 feet if needed, as slow as a bike, in order to offer our passengers a glimpse of those polar habitats to our passengers,” says Lawaczeck.
The 16 passengers will be lodged in eight spacious hotel-like double cabins. The airship will carry a crew of seven, including a chef.
Lawaczeck likes to compare it to the experience of traveling in a yacht.
“We are not as space-constrained as in an airplane, so we are able to do interesting things with the cabin,” he says. “The design is going to lean towards the heritage side of the project; it will evoke the era of airships.”
On board conditions will be a far cry from those endured by the crew of the Norge nearly a century ago, yet, had they been able to peek into the future, they may have found some elements of the OceanSky project rather familiar.
Svalbard will again serve as the base for the air cruise. OceanSky’s team is considering several locations around the Arctic archipelago, which has proudly preserved some elements of its airship heritage, including the North Pole Expedition Museum in its capital, Longyearbyen, and the original mooring mast used by the Norge, in Ny-Alesund.
Unlike in 1926, though, the 36-hour return trip will include a six-hour layover right at the North Pole. Passengers will be able to descend from the airship and enjoy a picnic on the ice cap.
“The airship will be sitting firmly on the ground for boarding and disembarking, facing the nose into the wind, so we can just open the door and let passengers in and out,” says Lawaczeck.
“The winds on the North Pole are very stable and do not have the issues of gusts or vortex or other phenomenon due to there being no terrain anywhere that can disrupt the airflow. You cannot ask for a safer landing site.”
He says they’re still considering whether to let the pilots actively control the ship with the pivoting engines running during this stop-off, or to bring a portable light-weight mooring mast or an anchor with them.
Lawaczeck is determined that no waste or other traces of activity will be left behind at the site. In fact, the environmental aspects of the project feature prominently in the startup’s marketing pitch. Its founder also likes to highlight how his interest in airships arose, in great part, from his interest in researching low-emission ways of flying.
OceanSky expects its airships to be powered by hybrid propulsion at first, using biofuel, although the goal is to transition later on to all-electric propulsion.
“OceanSky’s vision is to make aviation sustainable,” says Lawaczeck. “In order to have an impact on climate change we need to scale our operations and also penetrate lower and other market segments.”
Dawn of a new airship era?
Reservations are now open, but with a price tag of $232,845 for a two-person cabin OceanSky’s polar trips aren’t for all pockets. Aside from the polar cruises, which OceanSky hopes to run on a weekly basis, the Swedish entrepreneur intends to expand beyond experiential travel to cargo and passenger transport.
Earlier this year, its potential airship partner HAV released the latest photos of its craft and announced its intention to launch luxury intercity airship experiences by 2025. The plan is to link destinations a few hundred miles apart, such as Belfast and Liverpool or Seattle and Vancouver.
Airships could play a role in remote logistics, for example servicing mining outposts and offshore facilities or they could even capture some segments of the regular air travel market, those in which passengers are willing to trade speed for comfort or price.
OceanSky’s plan envisages its fleet growing to more than 100 airships within 10 years, with the target date for the first expedition in 2023 or 2024.
“We hope to make a real dent in how people travel in the future and we see a great potential in LTA as an affordable option for comfortable, elegant and clean travel for conscious passengers. For that, we need thousands of airships.”