No one was hurt, no one was injured and while the cockpit was slightly damaged there was little if any other significant damage reported from the heavy landing made by Hybrid Air Vehicles Airlander 10 prototype airship following its second test flight late last month.
And yet, judging by the mass of headlines, photographs, withering and badly written comment and speculation by those that clearly do not understand what test flights are all about, one may be forgiven for thinking that the unfortunate Airlander 10 heavy landing incident had been a disaster waiting to happen! It was far from being that and the best way to describe the incident is that this is what test flying is all about.
So what is all the fuss about? Having completed all planned tasks over the 100 minutes that it was in the air for its second test flight on the afternoon of August 24th the Airlander 10 made an unintended heavy landing on its home sight at Cardington. Clearly, something had gone wrong and the incident remains under investigation by the Airlander team.
Unfortunate though this incident has been and perhaps even embarrassing to see the airship resting in the nosedive position at its home base in Cardington, Bedfordshire, the point to stress here is that this is what test flight programmes are all about. This was in the great scheme of things, no big deal. Unfortunate as the particular incident might have looked to onlookers, what occurred on that sunny August afternoon for Airlander 10’s second test flight at Cardington is all part of what we may best describe as a steep learning curve. That is what test flying is all about – not just to see whether everything works but also to find the boundaries of what is and what is not possible.
Unfortunately, it appears that on seeing the mass of photographs of the incident published in press and on social media that all of a sudden the whole world suddenly became experts on Flight Test Programmes and worse, on hybrid aircraft technology without seemingly knowing much about either subjects at all. Indeed, such was the hysteria that one journalist whose knowledge of airship technology would appear to be rather less than his supposed knowledge of matters automotive, went so far as to write in a Sunday newspaper that ‘because lots of airships crashed around 100 years ago when they were developing the concept, we’re doomed to failure’. What absolute rubbish this was. Adding insult to injury and his clear lack of understanding about aircraft test flights, he went on to wish the Hybrid Air Vehicles team the best of luck!
What that particular individual, along no doubt with other would-be airship technology experts plus those that are perhaps not its best fans missed is that a great many fixed wing and rotary aircraft have crashed over the years and still do even now as engineers and pilots experiment with new concepts and designs.
Let’s be bold here and remember that the list of fixed wing and rotary aircraft crashes that have taken place during test flying programmes is as long as your arm and there have been far too many to list here. Indeed, the aviation history books are littered with incidents over the past century and just looking back over my lifetime of interest in this subject area and leaving military jets aside, when it comes to UK commercial passenger aircraft design test programmes, I would mention the crash of the original BAC-1-11 prototype aircraft, the crash of the prototype Bristol Britannia and one other, the near incident that, but for the brilliance of the test pilot concerned, might well have cost the lives of all on board the prototype Vickers VC-10 aircraft. It is of course only two months since a prototype Bell 525 helicopter crashed in Texas killing both test pilots on board.
Understandable, while Airlander has been very open in talking to press and media and admitting that something went wrong on the second test flight of Airlander 10 and that the incident remains under investigation, the one thing that they do not need now on such an important test programme is damaging and unnecessary speculation. Accidents do happen, mistakes do occur, much is learned and the whole concept and capability ends up being better understood. Test flights are, after all, just as much about collecting data and information, finding out new information of what the aircraft can and cannot do as it is also about testing or exceeding boundaries.
Clearly public interest in the Airlander 10 programme is extremely high and having visited Cardington to see the airship for myself on two occasions over the past year I can completely understand why. This is a very interesting programme and importantly, it is British and one that could well prove to be very successful. It is programmes such as the one that Hybrid Air Vehicles has been working hard on for several years and that has received a £3.4 million grant from the UK government, £2 million from the EU plus a further £2 million in crowdsourced funding that are at the centre of the technology development and innovation based programmes that the UK needs to ensure that our economy will continue to thrive.
I suppose that these days it may be true that to suggest that the present generation see flight test programmes in a rather different way to how people of my age did when we were young. Eurofighter Typhoon apart, there have in fact been no new UK based fixed-wing test flying programmes for a generation with the exception of BAE Systems unmanned Taranis aircraft. In the context of airships Hybrid Air Vehicles is certainly breaking that mould and as a long endurance, multi role vehicle that has been designed to support a range of specialist sectors including military intelligence, communications, surveillance, science, passengers and various forms of logistics including the potential capacity to carry 10-tonne payloads, Airlander 10 has huge international potential.
Clearly, some education is required as to what flight test programme are about. As far Hybrid Air Vehicles are concerned, flight testing is about learning as they go along and if this means that having the odd incident occurs or that if flights open the door to better understanding then the programme will be all the better for it. Sadly, having the odd incident or finding and exposing a problem or something that hadn’t been thought of are part and parcel of a test programme such as this.
It is important that we all remember as we look at the many successful aircraft types flying today that each and every one most probably suffered a catalogue of issues that were only discovered during the Flight Test Programmes. Flight test programmes are there to expose such problems and allow designers, engineers and technicians as well as test pilots themselves to sort these issues out. The Airlander 10 test flight programme is about learning not just how the airship performs in the air and what it can do and carry but also about the ground handling requirements and processes.
I am in no doubt that lessons learned from last months’ hard landing incident will be that Airlander 10 will perform even better going forward. As we look at this amazing giant airship we need to remind ourselves that what we are talking about here is the development of an entirely new type of aircraft and one that flies in an entirely new and different way to anything else commercially available.
With test pilot feedback so far excellent and important flight data collected and that will now be collated I continue to be very positive about the commercial future of Airlander 10. One small test flight incident from which much will be learned is not going to damage a programme such as this. Exciting this programme certainly is and one that industry has already shown considerable interest.
Whatever sceptics of airships might prefer to believe and despite obvious challenges that lie ahead, despite the occasional knock or incident that is bound to occur over the coming months as the test flight programme continues nothing can alter the fact that Airlander 10 is cutting-edge aerospace technology at its best.
CHW (London – 8th September 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS