Airlander: The world’s largest aircraft has just completed its maiden flight

The mighty Airlander 10 finally took to the skies on Wednesday evening, marking the maiden flight of the world’s biggest aircraft.

The massive blimp-shaped machine, which at 302 feet (92 meters) makes it 50 feet (15 meters) longer than a jumbo jet, sailed into the air over the English county of Bedfordshire, about 40 miles north of London. Watched by hundreds of locals, the Airlander performed a 30-minute circuit of the airfield before returning safely to terra firma, ABC reported.

“Extraordinary” is a label easily applied to the Airlander 10. It’s also been called a “flying bum” for its butt-shaped leading end, but we won’t dwell on that right now.

So why so special? Well, if its size alone isn’t enough to impress, consider its ability to stay airborne for up to two weeks at a time. Without a crew.

Combining design elements of airplanes, airships, helicopters, and hovercrafts, the Airlander, which is lifted by helium and powered by four turbocharged diesel engines, is capable of carrying cargo weighing as much as 10 tons, though future designs should boost that to 50 tons.

The ginormous contraption, which can reach heights of 16,000 feet (4,900 meters), could one day travel to all corners of the planet, capable as it is of landing on not just solid ground, but also water, desert, and ice.

Its laminated-fabric hull is strong enough to withstand gunfire, pretty important when you learn the machine was originally headed for use by the U.S. military. However, the plan to use it in surveillance work was scrapped three years ago when the American government withdrew development funding, leaving small British aviation firm Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) to keep the ambitious project alive. A similar design took to the skies in 2012, though so many changes have been made to it since then that Wednesday’s outing has been deemed a maiden flight.

While HAV says the Airlander could still be used for surveillance, it also sees other possibilities such as cargo transportation, aid delivery, pleasure trips, and even passenger travel, though with a top speed of 80 knots (90 mph), don’t expect to get anywhere fast.

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