Boeing’s Skyhook Shot: Redefining the Aerial Heavy-Lift Market?
In April 2006, “WALRUS Hunted to Extinction By Congress, DARPA?” dealt with the cancellation of DARPA’s WALRUS ultra-heavy lift program. WALRUS aimed to develop an airship that could lift between 250-500 tons, offering capacity that rivaled ship-borne options, but offered the benefits of transport all the way to the front without requiring ports and related infrastructure.
The program would have developed a 30-40 ton capacity demonstration model in its early stages, which would have had a useful role of its own. “Walrus Heavy-Lift Blimp Rises, Falls” also noted the requests of combat commanders for airlift options that could be used with smaller airfields, that cannot accommodate the 20-ton capacity C-130 Hercules aircraft. Not to mention related items like pressure to lower fuel use at the Pentagon, and 2005 warnings from the Army Corps of Engineers about energy costs/supplies and future military operations.
Now a private consortium sees similar needs and trends in key civilian sectors. A Canadian/American partnership that includes Boeing has set itself the public goal of building the commercial equivalent of DARPA’s desired demonstrator…
The JHL-40 Skyhook Platform
Boeing is careful to characterize the JHL-40 as a “rotorcraft,” in line with that firm’s existing traditions. The Seattle Times, however, referred to the project as a ‘blimp on steroids.’ The truth is somewhere in between. It will be a new commercial heavy-lift craft that combines rotorcraft technology with Skyhook’s patent for a neutrally buoyant blimp-like airframe. The helium-filled envelope is sized to support the weight of the vehicle and fuel without payload, allowing the lift generated by 4 rotors to handle only the payload.
This is very different from the standard engineering model for aircraft or rotorcraft. Under the standard model, the engines must lift the weight of an aircraft structure that grows larger and heavier as one raises the aircraft’s capacity. As the engines required for that task become bigger, they require more structural stabilization and more fuel. This adds weight yet again, which may require another increase in the size or number of engines.
By breaking this vicious engineering cycle, the SkyHook JHL-40 aircraft intends to able to lift a 40-ton/ 36.25 tonne sling load, then carry it at a speed of up to 200 miles/ 370 km without refueling, at a speed of about 70 knots. This is similar to the range of Boeing’s 10-ton capacity CH-47 helicopter at full sling load, but it is more than 30% slower in exchange for the 300% payload boost. The JHL-40 will also be substantially larger at 302 x 217 x 118 feet in size (92m x 66m x 36m).
First flight is scheduled for 2014.
The aircraft’s target market means that it will be expected to operate successfully in harsh environments such as the Canadian Arctic and Alaska. Industries like mining, oil and gas, the power sector, sustainable forestry, and even para-public activities like fire-fighting are among the civilian sectors who could see strong benefits from a craft with the Skyhook’s capabilities. If the craft succeeds, it could even remove some of the seasonal limitations, dangers, and expense associated with the current fleet of ice road truckers.
Other remote locations around the world, from Siberia to South America to Africa, may also find a compelling case for a heavy lift aircraft that uses less fuel, can reach remote areas with little to no landing facilities, and doesn’t require the construction of new roads through difficult or environmentally sensitive areas. In a nod to current hot-button issues, Boeing’s release says that these characteristics mean that the Skyhook is “expected to reduce the carbon footprint of the industrial projects it supports.”
These cost, deployment, and capacity advantages would also accrue to military forces who wished to use the Skyhooks or similar craft as a reliable option for material transfers from ship or seabase to shore, conduct disaster relief efforts, or use a less costly approach to getting supply convoys off of dangerous roads than the current fleets of C-130 and C-17 aircraft being pressed into service. While a JHL-40 would be significantly slower than aircraft like the C-130, its procurement cost, fuel costs, and maintenance costs are expected to be very significantly lower.
Contracts and Key Events
July 28/09: Boeing Company and SkyHook International Inc. tannounce that the design of the SkyHook Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) has reached the configuration freeze milestone, meaning the aircraft’s overall performance and layout have been established. This is pretty close to the schedule set out in January 2009. Boeing release | Environmental Protection Online.
Jan 8/09: The Calgary Sun runs “Hybrid blimp plans face financial hurdle” (link no longer available). It says that Boeing and Skyhook expect all 2,500 or so systems that go into building the aircraft to be finalized by mid-summer 2009. On the other hand, the financial environment has become more challenging, making the financing required for the first JHL-40 more difficult to secure. The firms are hoping to build the firm Heavy Lift Vehicle by late 2012 or early 2013. Airship World.
July 9/08: The Boeing Company in Ridley, PA and SkyHook International Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada announce a teaming agreement to develop the JHL-40 (Jess Heavy Lifter). Pat Donnelly, Boeing’s Director of Advanced Rotorcraft Systems:
“SkyHook secured the patent for this neutrally buoyant aircraft and approached Boeing with the opportunity to develop and build the system… We conducted a feasibility study and decided this opportunity is a perfect fit for [Boeing] Advanced Systems’ technical capabilities.”
Boeing reports that it has received the first increment of a multiyear contract from SkyHook to help develop the new aircraft, and has committed to build 2 production prototypes of the JHL-40 at its Rotorcraft Systems facility in Ridley Park, PA.
Skyhook will own, maintain, operate and service all JHL-40 aircraft for customers worldwide, and the new aircraft will enter commercial service “as soon as it is certified by Transport Canada and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.” Boeing release | c/net | Seattle Times.
- DID – Rise of the “Blimps”: The US Army’s LEMV. A long-endurance, optionally-manned surveillance airship with similar dimensions/ capacity – and growing civilian interest.
- Aviation Week (March 25/11) – Airship Hopeful Reveals Lockheed-Designed SkyTug. Based, apparently, on the P-791 losing design for the US Army’s LEMV.
- Shipping Digest (Dec 28/08) – Boeing’s Blimp