Ride in my beautiful balloon
On the epic project to move an old B-52 across state lines and what could be the missing piece of the lifting puzzle
A decommissioned B-52 is going from Arizona to Oklahoma over land, which seems like a lot of work. And it certainly is: The effort to get the old aircraft over a couple of state lines is going to cost millions of dollars, block highways, and generally creep along at a snail's pace along the route.
■ Once the old plane gets to Oklahoma City, the Air Force will use it as a test bed, since the B-52 airframe is expected to remain in service for a long time to come. Getting the airplane there via highway instead of by flying seems counter-intuitive, of course, until the significant challenge (and cost) of getting it airworthy for a single flight is fully apprehended.
■ Yet it is in a case like this when one wonders why we don't have more heavy-lifting airships available for this kind of purpose. Speed obviously isn't the main objective here -- the road trip alone is measurable in weeks, not hours. It would seem that the constraints of traveling by land would be easily surmounted if the payload could be carried by air. And indeed, the idea has been considered: The Canadian armed forces have looked at the idea and found it potentially practical.
■ A heavy-lifting airship called the CargoLifter was designed to be some 850' long (much longer than the 159' length of the B-52) and to carry around 350,000 lbs. of cargo (about twice the weight of an empty B-52). Other rival heavy-lifting airships have also been considered for development, though they still seem to be stuck in the big ideas phase, rather than gritty execution.
■ Considering the prospective benefits to such a type of transportation -- not least of which include the potential for very high energy efficiency and the obvious benefits to vertical takeoffs and landings directly from the cargo's origin point to its destination -- the idea certainly seems to be within range of becoming a reality over the mid-range horizon. Too late, perhaps, to get a B-52 to Oklahoma City, but perhaps likelier to turn into reality 15 or 20 years from now than one might think. If Amazon can spin up a major air-transportation network in a matter of just a few years, a future with heavy-lifting airships can't be written off.