Are you flying yet?
Yes. We started flying on October 27, 2006
How long have you been working on this project?
Can I buy one?
We're working on it. We have at least another year of product research and development to do. After that, our design will most likely need to be reviewed by the FAA before it can be sold. The FAA's design review and certification process can be as short as a few months or can take several years.
Can I buy a ride in your blimp?
We'd love to sell rides. However, our aircraft is currently certified as "experimental" by the FAA and so we're
prohibited from selling rides.
Can I invest in your company?
Is your aircraft just for recreation or can it do other things?
There are many applications for this type of aircraft other than recreation. With its superior low-speed control, it is perfect for such things as eco-tourism and forest canopy research. It is also an excellent photo/movie platform.
Its smooth ride also makes it well suited
for precision low-altitude airborne sensing applications.
Diamond prospectors and land mine clearing
operations have already had some success using helium blimps for this type of sensing.
Because hot air is much cheaper to use than helium (Our aircraft cost about one tenth as much to build and operate as a standard helium blimp.) we can meet these needs very profitably as well as entering more traditional blimp venues such as advertising.
Do I need to be a pilot to fly it?
Yes, you'll need to be trained as a pilot.
We suggest that one should have ratings as both an airplane pilot
and as a hot air balloon pilot in order to fly this aircraft.
Is an airship rating required?
According to the FAA's regulations, Alberto technically qualifies as an airship.
So in general, in order to take passengers, a pilot must have an airship rating.
However Alberto flies much more like a hot air balloon than a conventional airship. As a result, the FAA has granted Alberto's two builders special permission to take non-paying passengers for rides.
As our flight experience has grown, we have come to believe that the
FAA will need to revise its rules for airships pilots to properly
deal with aircraft like Alberto. We hope to work with the FAA
in the future to make the necessary rule changes.
The pictures of your aircraft
show conventional (loud) hot air balloon burners and a noisy gas engine.
What's with this talk about serene flight?
You know that old saying about Rome not being built in a day? Well, the same
holds true for aircraft. We made a deliberate tactical decision that
wherever practical, we would initially use conventional technologies.
We faced enough engineering challenges developing the unconventional
aspects of the aircraft.
Now that we've successfully gotten into the air,
we'll begin to replace the noisy components with quieter ones.
We'll be starting with the burners first. The engine, since it's
mounted far away on the tail, can barely be heard from the cabin as is.
How much will it cost?
We'd like to know as well, but our crystal ball is a bit foggy here.
Some components of the sale price, such as the cost of construction, we understand quite well. However, given the unique nature of our design, it is not
entirely clear where it falls within the FAA's regulatory framework.
The FAA uses one sets of certification rules for airships and a different set for hot air balloons.
The rules for airships were drawn up with helium-based aircraft in mind.
The rules for balloons were drawn up with unpowered aircraft in mind.
One challenge of creating a truly new type of aircraft is that
it doesn't fit neatly into either regulatory box.
The hurdles (and thus costs) involved with certifying a
new aircraft for sale are very different for each set of rules.
The FAA may choose to use one set or the other or some subset of each.
It's impossible to determine the cost of the certification process, which will be a significant component of
the sale price, until we actually start the process a year or so from now.
That said, we expect the price of the aircraft to be between $100,000 and
$200,000 depending upon configuration and precise FAA certification process applied.
If that sounds like a high price you might keep in mind that it's about what it
costs to buy a new small airplane or mid-sized (35 foot) sailboat these days.
Further, if you go out and price a helium airship, you'll find that the cheapest
one made costs over $2 million. If you want a real top-notch ship, the Zeppelin NT
-- the only other airship available with in-flight control that comes close to ours,
you're looking at a price tag over $12 million.
Other people sell cheaper hot air blimps. Why shouldn't I buy one of theirs?
There are indeed hot air blimps available from other reputable manufacturers today. However, we're not satisfied with the performance of these other aircraft in a two important ways.
First of all, their designs can only be inflated when the surface winds are
fairly calm. The key to controlling any blimp in a moderate ground breeze
(unless you willing to hire a small army of people to act as ground crew)
is being able to fly up to a mooring mast.
The key to being able to fly up to a mast is effective control of steering
at slow airspeeds. That's why we chose to tackle
low-speed steering first. It is the key enabling technology for using a mast.
In general, none of the other hot air ships steer very well.
Some of the more advanced designs steer reasonably well
once they get up to speed. However, things get tricky when they
slow down to hovering speeds -- i.e. when approaching a mooring mast.
In contrast, we can spin our ship around like a top.
In order to obtain such highly effective steering, we needed to
find a better way to build a blimp.
Unless the other folks who make hot air blimps make comparably
radical changes in their designs, it's hard to see how they will
ever be able to use a mooring mast.
(By the way, we haven't actually built our mast yet.
However, it is one of the next steps in our development plan.)
Secondly, their designs have very low airspeeds. How slow isn't
entirely clear. For example, some of their websites
claim that they can fly at 40 km/h (25 mph). However one
can't help but notice that the FAI's
world speed record
for hot air airships stands at 27.5 km/h (17 mph).
They've been working for
years to fly faster, but they seem to reached the limits of their technology.
In contrast, while we don't fly very fast yet, our new
structural concepts gives us a clear roadmap for going faster.
We've "done the math" and can reasonably
expect to build aircraft with significantly higher airspeeds with only
a modest increase in the weight of our aircraft's structure.
How high can it fly?
Like virtually any hot air balloon, it is certainly capable of
flying many thousands of feet above the ground. However, we haven't
felt inclined to do so yet. Alberto, as we like to call it,
is truly a cutting-edge experimental aircraft. So we stick pretty close to
home both vertically and horizontally. We've been several hundred feet up,
but we tend to fly at tree-top level.
Besides, we don't feel any strong desire to fly higher any time soon. Already we've
noticed that the higher we fly, the less unique the experience feels. It's great fun to poke around the tops of the trees where no other powered aircraft can routinely and safely fly.
How fast does it go?
Frankly, we don't know for sure yet. Our calculations predict that, with the
current engine in place, we'll go about 12 miles per hour. However,
for a variety of reasons, we have only flown at about 8 miles per hour so far.
Is 12 MPH as fast as this thing is ever going to go?
Certainly not. 12 miles per hour is by no means the upper limit of speed.
It's only the limit with the current, cheap but heavy, 24 horsepower engine.
Once we've finished testing the ship in its current configuration,
we'll start the process of upgrading to a larger lightweight 80 horsepower engine. With a few performance tweaks, we should be able to get to almost 20 miles per hour. At that point we'll be reaching the limits of how fast aircraft of this shape will go. In order to go faster, we'll need to build the second, sleeker design that we've already got on the drawing board.
Why do you use hot air?
We chose hot air because it is much easier and cheaper
to work with than helium.
Blimp? Airship? Dirigible? Balloon? Zeppelin? What's the difference?
Each term has a long history. A good place to start is
There is also Wikipedia article for
Why did you name it Alberto?
The name is a small homage to our hero and inspiration, the great aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont.
See the Wikipedia article about him for more information.
Is it safe? Don't blimps explode?
Our aircraft is one of the safest in the sky. There are lots
of reasons for this. But the single most important one is that it flies at
low altitudes and low airspeeds. Going low and slow is not
only beautiful, it's also safer. In addition, our design gives the pilot
more control than any other type of lighter-than-air aircraft.
The notion that blimps explode in flames comes from the famous
of 1937, that aircraft
was filled with highly flammable Hydrogen gas. Nobody really knows how the
fire started. But once it did, the Hydrogen ignited and the
famous fireball resulted. Amazingly, even with the intense fire, 2/3rds of the
people onboard survived. In any case, neither we nor anybody else
today has an airship filled with Hydrogen.
Unfortunately, even though the explosion risk has long been a thing of the past,
the exploding airship sequence has become a staple of Hollywood movies.
It's much like the smashed fruit-carts that seem to be part
of every action movie that has a car chase. If you see a fruit-cart
by the side of the road during a movie car chase,
you can be pretty sure that it's going to get clobbered.
Likewise, any time an airship appears in a movie, you can bet your popcorn
it's going to disappear in a ball of flame. But in real life, blimps don't explode.
Wasn't there some guy who once flew by tying a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair?
Yes indeed, this particular "urban legend" is true. The flight was made on July 2, 1982 in San Pedro, CA
by Larry Walters. It was wildy dangerous, disrupted flights near LAX, and was completely illegal.
Today, this sort of flying uses much more refined technology and can be done safely, in stark contrast to Walters' debacle.
The two regular practitioners of cluster ballooning in the US today are