Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hope in the air as airship backers hit annual huddle

MKO joins group in presenting gathering

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THERE'S still no evidence of airships in the air, but developers from around the world met once again in Winnipeg this past week at a conference that has been held here just about every year since 2002.

As a forum for the discussion about a new generation of airships and the demand for their services in northern and Arctic regions, the conference once again brought together airship developers from around the world including California, Brazil, Russia and the U.K.

This year, Barry Prentice, the University of Manitoba Transportation Institute, the driving force behind the conference, teamed up with the northern Manitoba chiefs' organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak (MKO) to present the event.

"I'm pleased that the First Nations are taking the lead," Prentice said. "They are the ones that need the service. They realize it will be a long time before roads are built to the north. I'm not sure the ice roads will last that long."

Changing climatic conditions and growing interests in various kinds of economic development in the north is bringing more urgency to interest in various types of lighter-than-air airships for heavy cargo and passenger traffic.

Prentice said he understands the introduction of the technology is at an early stage -- even though it is not much different than that in wide use 75 years ago -- that the investment capital needed to get more development and more early-stage testing done is just not available.

But this past summer, Aeros Corp. of Montebello, Calif., successfully held the inaugural test flight of its 266-ft.-long rigid variable-buoyancy air vehicle. Last month, that company also received its airworthiness certificate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), also the first of its kind.

Corky Belanger, the pilot for that test flight who has flown a dozen different types of airships over a lengthy career, spoke at the Winnipeg conference this week.

"That airship is a game-changer," Belanger said of the Aeroscraft.

He said among other things, it is designed to control lift in all stages of air or ground operations, including the ability to off-load heavy payloads without the need to re-ballast.

When asked why the airships are not in more common use when developers seem so certain about their ability to do the job, Prentice said it comes down to a lack of confidence in the community at large.

That leads to a dearth in investment capital Prentice said would be given a boost with more public-sector support.

John Spacek, the recently appointed vice-president of planning and development at CentrePort Canada (and a former assistant deputy minister with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation) said CentrePort monitors development in the industry.

"From my view, it is a question of when, not if" airships become more common Spacek said. "Their day will come. And we believe CentrePort could be a centre for manufacture, assembly and even a terminal link."

But Spacek told the conference there has to be much more work done before a facility such as CentrePort could add airships as an additional mode of transportation serviced at the inland port.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 B19

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