Google co-founder Sergey Brin is building a hi-tech airship in Silicon Valley destined to be the largest aircraft in the world, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the project.
“It’s going to be massive on a grand scale,” said one, adding that the airship is likely to be nearly 200 meters long. This would make it by far the world’s largest aircraft today, albeit smaller than the epic Hindenburg Zeppelins of the 1930s, or the American navy airship USS Macon that was once based in the very same hangars where Brin’s aircraft is now taking shape.
The sources revealed details of the airship on the condition of anonymity, citing confidentiality agreements. Brin has revealed nothing of his airship ambitions and is building the airship in a giant hangar on a Nasa airfield far from the eyes of the public.
Brin wants the gargantuan airship, funded personally by the billionaire, to be able to deliver supplies and food on humanitarian missions to remote locations. However, it will also serve as a luxurious intercontinental “air yacht” for Brin’s friends and family. One source put the project’s price tag at $100m to $150m.
Igor Pasternak, an airship designer who was involved in the early stages of the project, believes airships could be as revolutionary for the trillion-dollar global cargo market as the internet was for communications. “Sergey is pretty innovative and forward looking,” he said. “Trucks are only as good as your roads, trains can only go where you have rails, and planes need airports. Airships can deliver from point A to point Z without stopping anywhere in between.”
But although a traditional airship does not need a runway, it does have a problem with buoyancy. If an airship off-loads a heavy cargo, it needs to load up with a similar weight in ballast to avoid shooting skywards. Brin’s airship will use a system of internal gas bladders to control its buoyancy, allowing it to off-load almost anywhere in the world, according to multiple sources.
Brin has been fascinated by airships for years. Google has long flown its corporate jets out of the Nasa Ames airfield, home to the USS Macon’s iconic hangars. Alex Hall, who operated a business called Airship Ventures offering tourist rides in a modern 75-meter-long Zeppelin from Ames, remembers Brin’s enthusiasm for lighter-than-air travel.
“We had a lot of interactions with Sergey over the years,” she said. “He is definitely somebody that has a passion for this type of transportation.”
In 2014, Brin got in touch with Alan Weston, an aerospace engineer who had been the director of programs at Nasa. Brin asked Weston to research airship technology that could fulfill his twin dreams of luxury travel and aid relief, but at much higher speeds than the airships of old.
“Weston canvassed the world looking for who had the best ideas and technology,” one source said. “He even went to Germany and talked to the people at Zeppelin … but he found Igor had the best ideas.”
In November 2014, a Google-controlled company called Planetary Ventures signed a $1.1bn, 60-year lease for more than 1,000 acres of the Moffett Field airbase at Ames, including its three large airship hangars. Planetary Ventures would preserve and restore the historic hangars, and in return get the space and privacy it needed to carry out its own aeronautical development.
The partnership with Pasternak did not continue, and he continues to develop his own airship designs. Nevertheless, early in 2015 Brin asked Weston to build a one-tenth scale model of a variable buoyancy airship to test its air worthiness, one source said. Those flight tests apparently went well, as in April Bloomberg News reported that construction of a full-size airship was under way.
Bloomberg reported that Weston briefly listed his employer on LinkedIn as Ltare. This is an abbreviation for LTA Research and Exploration, where LTA stands for “lighter than air”. The company, founded in 2014, is controlled by Brin’s private family business. In its latest filing with Californian authorities, LTA listed as its manager Clock LLC, a company that held patents for Alphabet’s airborne wind power firm Makani Power. Makani has also used Hangar 2 for testing in the past.
Brin’s airship was originally intended to use hydrogen as a lifting gas. Hydrogen is much cheaper than helium and provides more than 10% more lift, but will forever be linked with the infamous Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey in 1937 that claimed 36 lives.
The Federal Aviation Administration currently requires all airships to have non-flammable lifting gases, ruling out highly volatile hydrogen. The airship now being built uses helium, according to a source with knowledge of the project’s current status.
It could be some time before we know for sure all the secrets Brin’s airship holds. But the good news is that the first flight test of such an enormous aircraft will be impossible to hide. “If you want to travel in style like the airships of old then you need something large,” Hall said. “Personally, I’d love to have airships going back and forth across the Atlantic. I couldn’t think of any better way of doing that journey.”
Google declined to comment on the story but everyone that has heard about it has said: “We don’t want Google’s billionaire cloud ruining our views and using our sky for his personal self-glorification crap.”