When I was younger a TV show called Beyond 2000 ran a story about the Helistat Piasecki PA-97 prior to it’s testing. I never saw the episode, but I do have the book! For years I looked at this interesting concept, wondering if it was successful or not.
This was obviously before the internet and this was one of the first bits of research that I did once I had access. To my disappointment it was a failure, and a rather complete one at that. After only a few trials there was a ground handling mishap due to a gust of wind, and everything was destroyed. Sadly even the test pilot died.
This seemed to have the had the effect of killing the concept for some time, even though the fault was mostly attributable to the rough nature of the prototype; the frame was inadequate and all other parts were re-cycled. Even the name “helistat” has become a dirty word. But the concept of the hybrid airship is too appealing to resist. By combining the neutral buoyancy of a blimp/zeppelin with the lifting power of a helicopter allows you to cancel out most of the vehicle weight leaving you with a long range craft with the vast aerial lifting capabilities. Many industries need this; especially logging. But the advantages don’t stop there. The PA-97 disaster aside, “hybrid airships” would be much easier to handle on the ground due to reduced buoyancy, which also means that the ballast issues that make zeppelins and blimps impractical become a non issue. Also, unlike ships and aircraft, all they need is an roughly-prepared open area to load and unload.
Thus it’s hardly surprising that the idea has been revived. This is the SkyHook JHL-40, a joint Boeing – SkyHook International project that is aiming to achieve a 40 ton lift over 320 km (200 miles). No prototype is ready as yet; in fact nothing is likely to even be in the air until 2014. Hopefully it’s the first of many. I must confess that it’s a dream of mine that zeppelins have a revival in my lifetime; I think they have a potential to replace some aspects of sea and air transport, especially with odd shaped cargo.
DARPA are actually researching this right now, with a project referred to as Walrus HULA, but details are scarce on the project. (It may even be canceled.)
But for now it seems that the concept will just have to live on as a favourite Sci-Fi / Steampunk concept!