Perhaps it’s time to float the idea of airships.
It’s long been a compelling dream to imagine huge balloons gliding silently over Manitoba’s northern bush and muskeg, carrying tonnes of freight to isolated communities and worksites, using only one-quarter the fuel of airplanes, needing only an open field to land.
The dream has been kept aloft in Manitoba by Barry Prentice, a professor of supply management at the University of Manitoba, who invested five years and his own money in an airship prototype called the Sky Whale. Tragically, a powerful storm last July destroyed his prototype and its airship hangar.
It’s to be hoped Mr. Prentice will find the wherewithal, and outside funding, to continue to pursue his passion because, frankly, no one is offering better ideas, and northern transportation is woefully inadequate.
Ice roads, a transportation mode exciting enough to be a reality-TV show, have long been used to move fuel and heavy goods such as appliances. But climate change has shrunk the ice-road season in half, and the planet is only getting warmer.
The railway has been used for decades, but it’s broken and no one is hurrying to fix it. Sections of the Hudson Bay Railway to Churchill are washed out, stranding communities without land transportation. The railway’s owner, Omnitrax, appears reluctant to reopen the line, which will continue to lose money because Churchill is no longer considered viable as a port for international grain shipments.
An all-weather road is a solution urged by some people, but permafrost would make it a challenging road to build and maintain for relatively little traffic. The construction price tag of a road from from Gillam to Churchill could be as high as $1 billion.
So what about airships? They could never totally replace other modes of northern transportation because they’re generally designed for freight, not commercial passengers. For example, Manitobans accustomed to using the Hudson Bay Railway for personal travel would suffer financially if their only option for getting out of town was paying high fares to travel on small airplanes.
But, when it comes to freight, governments and businesses around the world are investing serious money in airships, hoping for reliable and cost-effective cargo transportation to isolated communities.
The Financial Post reports a Quebec company called Quest Rare Minerals plans to use a fleet of seven Lockheed airships to transport supplies to its Strange Lake mine near Labrador, and then to carry ore out.
The Quebec firm is getting the airships from Lockheed Martin, the largest supplier of military aircraft in the U.S., a country that has spent US$1 billion in research into airships since 9/11.
The global progress in airship development has been chronicled by in-depth journalism in the Economist, the Telegraph and the New Yorker, which reported this: "A new generation of airship engineers, some backed by significant government and private investment, is convinced that, given new technologies and new materials, the public can be sold on airships. In recent years, aerospace heavyweights Boeing and Northrop Grumman have developed airships; Russia, Brazil, and China have built or conceived prototypes."
It’s worth a serious study to determine what these countries know that Manitoba doesn’t.
In his most recent opinion column in the Free Press ("Airships’ time has come in the north," May 29), Mr. Prentice laid out the next step: cargo airships won’t be insurable in Manitoba until proven reliable in winter, and development of that proof requires a large hangar for cold-weather testing.
Manitoba should take a lesson from the professor.