Monday, 20 August 2012

Man seeks to stage around-the-world airship race

Man seeks to stage around-the-world airship race

I promised you a corker of a story for the next featured article to appear on this blog and I do believe this delivers.  On my birthday (near enough) too; what a bloggy present!  This could easily enter my personal top ten, if not the Stats' most popular.  Why, because it features airships!  A particularly vintage mode of transport that regular readers will know I am quite enthusiastic about and which is long overdue for a resurgence.  If that isn't enough it also marries these fantastic machines to an undertaking of historic and thrilling proportions - an around-the-world race!

I'm struggling to find the words to convey my enthusiasm for this idea - I mean, airships... flying around the world... visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites!  It sounds incredible - a never-before-tried, once-in-a-lifetime event.  Although even I started off thinking the accompanying video was a trifle hyperbolic in its language the more I think about it the more excited I become.  Is it too much to ask, though?  The World Sky Race, as it is known, has already had a long gestation period with launch dates having come and gone.  It would be a monumental task in both monetary and logistical terms and is the brainchild of just one man.  But some big names in aviation seem genuinely interested and more importantly members of UNESCO appear quite sympathetic to the idea, so there may be a good chance for it.  I certainly hope so!

It wouldn't be the first circumnavigation of the globe by a lighter-than-air ship, of course, as the German airship LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin undertook its own around-the-world flight in 1929.  That journey captured the public's imagination and cemented its place in aviation history.  Many dozens of books have been written, articles published and documentaries recorded - including the recent 2009 Dutch drama-documentary Farewell (shown on B.B.C. Four as Around The World By Zeppelin, as you may recall).  Why should it not be the same for the World Sky Race?

Those involved in the enterprise speak of its potential attraction to the public of today and I for one agree with them.  I'd even accept the airships having to be plastered in advertising if that's what it takes to realise this idea.  In this age of the Internet and instant communication, where distances are forgotten and travel is sanitised, a global airship race could serve as a reminder of the thrill and excitement of travel, the great expanses that make up our planet and the human endeavour it can still take to cross them.

Such was the kind of reaction to the famous long-distance aeroplane races of the 1930s, when friendly competition and national pride combined with cutting-edge technology to create spectacles that enthralled thousands - if not millions - of people as they followed these pioneering aviators as they raced across land and ocean in their attempts to be the fastest.  Like the 1929 Graf Zeppelin circumnavigation these journeys were the great adventures of their day.  As the human race becomes ever more sedentary with its computers and automated machines, events like the World Sky Race take on an even greater rôle - a challenge that requires strength, endurance and skill; proof that long-distance, circumnavigational racing by air still has its place in the 21st century.

Eleven years ago the 2001 London-Sydney Air Race gave me some idea of what it must have been like to follow the pilots of the 1930s in their similar England-Australia flights and proves that there is still an appetite for this kind of event.  Indeed record-breaking and endurance flights are still happening on a regular basis, but the suggestion of using airships is a novel yet worthwhile variation.  Worthwhile thanks in no small part to the involvement of UNESCO and the desire of the man behind the World Sky Race for these majestic "sky ships" to visit heritage sites throughout the world on their journey inspiring children everywhere to discover more about these important locations in a fun new way and showing these remarkable natural and man-made landmarks in a new and stimulating way to people all over the world.  For this noble reason alone the World Sky Race deserves to succeed.

The United States Army are known to be testing a new airship design and while the military aspect may not sit well with the peaceful, educational nature of the World Sky Race both it and the worldwide race would do wonders for the public perception of airships and go a long way to ushering in a new age of lighter-than-air travel.  If the World Sky Race stays on course then come 2014 I shall definitely be at Greenwich to cheer the participants on as they start their momentous journey and perhaps begin the renaissance of the airship.

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