If you are a person who loves gazing at the sky, there is the opportunity to see a myriad of things in the airspace above Altona – from natural elements such as blue skies, puffy clouds, supermoon, eclipses, southern lights, flocking birds to man-made structures such as fireworks, drones, surfing kites, powered parachutes, helicopters and planes.On 15th February 2015, I had the fortune to see an airship or more precisely, a blimp. This was hovering above the Altona Pier and I quickly snapped a photo before it moved away. I recalled that was a hot, sunny day and many people were having recreational activities on the beach.


Altona Beach – Melbourne’s Bondi Beach

At that time, I thought that this is a remotely-controlled drone. However, I found from my online research that this is a piloted blimp. The bulk and most prominent part of the blimp is the barrage balloon or envelope inflated with a lifting gas, usually helium but can also be heated air. The shape of the blimp is maintained by the balloon’s internal overpressure and the strength of its envelope. The only solid parts are the gondola or passenger car attached to the bottom of the balloon and the tail fins. Since the blimp does not have a keel or an internal frame structure, it is also known as a non-rigid airship.

Being the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight, airships were most commonly used before the 1940s. Their usage declined over time as their capabilities were surpassed by those of aeroplanes and as a result of a series of high-profile accidents.  Blimps were used as patrol airships by the United States Navy during and shortly after World War I. In contrast to airplanes or helicopters which use engines to fly or hover, a blimp depends on its gas to provide the lift, allowing it to stay afloat anywhere for much longer duration, lasting from hours to days, without expending fuel. These properties make blimps ideal for application in advertising, sport event coverage and certain research such as whale scouting. There has been recent renewed interest in using rigid airships for lifting and transporting heavy military or civilian cargo such as ships, tanks and oil rigs.

By 2014, there were about 13 active advertising airships in the world, including one in Australia. The white goods retailer Appliances Online contracted the American-based Van Wagner Airship Group to build the Legend Blimp for flying around Australia as an advertising airship. The stability and slow cruising speed of the Legend Blimp make it ideal for capturing stunning aerial images of the most beautiful natural and man-made landmarks in Australia.

The Legend Blimp was first inflated in October 2014, with test flights conducted around Melbourne before being officially launched at Sydney Harbour in December 2014. The Legend Blimp had since encircled Sydney, returned to Melbourne via Canberra and Albury, flew back to Sydney and continued its journey northward. However it is unable to fly anywhere it desires. For instance, its path is restricted by Victorian laws that prohibit aerial advertising over major sponsored sporting events such as the Australian Open at Melbourne Park.


Aerial photo of Altona Pier and Altona Beach from the Legend Blimp.
Source: The Daily Mail.

With a length of 39 metres, width of 11 metres and height of 13.4 metres, the Legend Blimp has the distinction of being the largest and only blimp currently flying in the southern hemisphere. To get an idea of its size, its length is about that of three buses parked bumper to bumper and it takes five Legend Blimp to stack on top of one another to equal the height of the Sydney Opera House.

The balloon is made from nylon ripstop, similar to the material used for space suits. Inflated with 21,700 cubic metres of the inert gas helium, it is completely non-flammable. Hence it will not suffer the fate of the hydrogen-filled German passenger airship Hindenburg which caught fire and was destroyed in a fatal disaster on 6th May 1937, killing 35 people.


Hindenburg – the Titanic of the Skies

At night, the Legend Blimp is illuminated by two 1000 watt light bulbs located inside its balloon, making it visible in the dark. For this reason, it is also known as the Lightship.

The Legend Blimp has two engines and can be steered. Wheelchair-style controls, attached to either side of the pilot’s seat, control the angle of the nose, thereby determining its upward or downward trajectory. The airship is normally piloted by one or two staff in the gondola. It has a 13-strong crew of two pilots, two aviation mechanics, a crew chief, a clerk and a ground crew including watch keepers.

The crew keeps a close watch on the weather and for safety considerations, the Legend Blimp stays grounded if rain, storms or strong winds are forecasted.

The video above shows two to three ground crew members grabbing cables on each side of the blimp to steady it as it descends, bringing it to a halt in a controlled fashion.

You can track the current location of the Legend Blimp by checking the Blimptracker on Appliance Online’s website, which is not available at the time of writing this post.

References

1. Wikipedia article on Blimp
2. How Blimps Work
3. The Hindenburg Disaster
4. News article from The Daily Mail
5. Information on Legend Blimp on Appliances Online website
6. News article from Herald Sun