Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a blimp!
It’s a zeppelin!
It’s a whatchamacallit ... big thingy ... a dirigible!
To be exact, it’s a SkyHook JHL-series heavy lifter.
If there’s nothing cooler than a humongous helium-filled airship with helicopter rotors, it’s because this thing was designed for the Arctic.
And specifically with the oil and gas industry in mind.
For the explorationist who has some ideas about prospects in remote areas that otherwise would be stranded, perhaps this big boy can make dreams become reality.
JHL stands for Jess Heavy Lifter, the brainchild of former helicopter pilot Pete Jess of Calgary, Canada.
“My whole concept stems from working 30-odd years in the logistics business of moving things around in the Arctic, and the expense and difficulty of doing that,” he said.
Jess got the idea of a rotor-lift airship more than 20 years ago. He eventually took his concept to the working stage, and about three years ago founded the company SkyHook International in Calgary.
It partnered with Boeing to start making the heavy lifter a reality, with construction of a pair of production prototypes in Pennsylvania.
His basic idea was a thing of beauty. If you have a big huge helicopter with a big old huge motor for heavy loads, you have to lift both the helicopter and the payload.
“What makes mine different, and what the patent is,” Jess said, “is this is a neutrally buoyant aircraft.”
Because the JHL weighs out at zero, just about all the lift from its four Chinook helicopter motor-and-rotor sets goes toward lifting the payload. That allows the SkyHook airship to pick up a 40-ton to 50-ton load and carry it 100 miles.
“We could get something almost anywhere we wanted it in the Arctic,” Jess recalled.
The problem was, getting the load the last few dozen miles without existing roads might cost 10 times as much as transporting it the first 2,000 miles.
As an example, Jess cited the challenge of moving drilling equipment into the western North Slope of Alaska.
“That’s pretty gnarly country out there. It’s very expensive to put in roads to drill exploration wells. Same with the Mackenzie Valley,” he said.
With the JHL airship, companies could pick up payloads and deposit them into the most remote and rugged terrain, with little environmental consequence.
Jess is still enthused about his idea, even though he sold out his interest in SkyHook to an unnamed “big oil company” early in 2009. He continues to work on logistics problems in the Arctic for the oil industry.
Shell Technology Ventures Fund, managed by Kendra Capital, has been the lead investor in the SkyHook program.
Boeing has announced it expects the JHL craft to be in service in 2012. Even then, true helicopters will still continue to carry drilling rigs and equipment into remote areas.
State-of-the-art for chopper transport today is probably an average of 25,000 pounds for 25 miles without refueling, according to Walter Palubiski of Helicopter Transport Services Inc. in Corvallis, Ore.
HTS does most of its remote rig transport in South America, carrying big-time loads in helicopters that are 80 feet long.
“It’s not for the faint of heart, and you have to have something of this size to haul them,” Palubiski said.
The world’s biggest helicopter in wide use is the Russian Mi-26, which can carry a payload of about 40,000 pounds.
Various militaries around the world and some companies have tried building bigger aircraft for heavy hauling, including dirigible-plus-rotor combinations. A notable attempt coupled a U.S. Navy blimp with four helicopters.
The SkyHook if successful, would be the biggest commercial craft. Current designs call for an airship 302 feet long and 118 feet high, with a loaded range of about 200 nautical miles and a speed of 70 knots.
Jess said he developed the idea of a heavy lifter with the oil industry in mind. He flew helicopters “as a kid in the 1970s” and wanted to find some way to move a truck-size load without the need for roads.
Airlifting would not only be cheaper, he knew, but it also would avoid the environmental problems and related expenses of road building.
“You add up the costs and it’s staggering,” Jess noted.
He said 65 percent of the cost of a $50 million exploration well in a far northern area could come from logistics costs and the expense of meeting environmental regulations and restrictions.
SkyHook airships will be operated by specially trained pilots who are experts in lift-and-move, navigating and steering the craft with instruments that probably will include a joystick control.
When you consider the benefits of a heavy-lift airship, and the fact that it might be one of the tools that opens the Arctic to exploration, you can’t help but ask:
“Can I ride in it?”
Sadly, the answer is:
“No. You can’t.”