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In Conversation: Airships and Hot Air Balloons

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Manitoba's prototype airship is folded up and tucked away in a St. Andrews airport hangar. The company that owns it says it's very close to finally lifting off.

And to raise the profile of the challeges to get goods up North in Manitoba, the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba is holding a conference today at the Fort Garry Hotel. Paul Earl is the acting director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba.

U of M professor Barry Prentice, the president of  ISOPolar Airships, promotes airships as a cost-effective way to beat back the challenge of global warming and getting freight up north.

Against a backdrop of a dozen similar conferences since 1997, this one -- Northern Exposure 2: Realities of Remote Logistics-- will examine the role for airships compared to ice-road trucking and all-weather road construction.

Two airship companies, Varialifter PLC and Worldwide Aeros, are sending speakers to the event.

Q. Is the airship still in hanger in St. Andrews?

A. It's still in the hanger, not inflated. We're having a heck of a time getting the helium.

Q. If your pilot is getting a licence and you could get helium, how close are you to taking flight?

A. In terms of the pilot's licence, I think he's got a couple of hours of flight to get checked out on... Once we get that and we can get helium, yes, we're ready to fly. We have a small airship. We'd need support and funding to build a bigger one and take it north.

Q. A Commons committee released a report in February on the transportation gaps in Canada. It floated the concept of airships, to take goods up north where muskeg makes roads impractical, but regulations have stood in the way, pretty much since the Hindenburg crash of the 1930s. What are some of the regulations you are facing?

A. In order to fly an airship in this country right now, you must have a commercial hot air balloon pilot's licence. That's why our pilot's been going through this, which is crazy -- there's no burner on an airship. We don't use propane. We use helium.

Q. Probably shades of the Hindenburg?

A. Well, that's right. It was an overreaction at the time. You have to ask yourself how many other airships that burned. Would we have banned the wheel if it ran over somebody's toe the first time? That's kind of a knee-jerk reaction. We have very serious requirements and training for pilots in North America and we're not saying airship pilots should have different training. We're saying an airship pilot should not have a hot air balloon licence... After that, there's an unspecified check-out on an airship. We don't know what that means. It's not very well defined. The regulations in Canada are antiquated... they do exist but they're copied from what the U.S. had 25 or 30 years ago.

Q. If Ottawa were to rewrite the rules, what would make more sense?

A. What should happen is, it should be a rating on an airplane pilot's licence. The airship has engines and dials and fuel and landing gear. It operates more like an airplane than it does like a hot air balloon.

Q. You heard about the Egyptian hot air balloon disaster (earlier this week)?

A. I did and I had a chat with my business partner Dale George who's almost finished his hot air balloon licence. What he said was, there's almost only one possibility here: There's a leak that's occurred in the propane.

We can give the (pilot) the benefit of the doubt since he's no longer with us. Either he didn't smell the leak and ignited it or he did and he panicked... and that set off the propane.

Q. Could that happen here?

A. It's not something Canadians should suddenly become concerned with, that that fate awaits them. Hot air ballooning is actually very safe. Pilots are very well trained. This would be standard procedure: You would NEVER hit the burner with the propane in Canada.

-- Alexandra Paul

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2013 A13

History

Updated on Friday, March 1, 2013 at 11:22 AM CST: Paul Earl is the acting director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba. Incorrect information appeared earlier.

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