Cargolifter Remembered


Cargolifter ‘Flying Crane’ CL160

Twenty years ago we thought airships could be the future of heavy lifting and specialized transportation. Do you remember Cargolifter, the flying crane?

Two months ago I wrote about disrupting construction and discussed the impact that cutting-edge technologies like 3D printing and graphene might have on construction.

However, I am reminded that one should never have too much faith in predictions of the future. When man first walked on the moon on 1969, it seemed clear that within 50 years we would be colonising Mars. Not even close. That same year Concorde made its first flight and in 1973 flew from Washington to Paris in just three hours 32 minutes. After 40 years of technological progress, today it takes eight hours. It sometimes seems as if the world is moving backwards.

It is not just space rockets and supersonic jets that have failed to meet expectations placed upon them. Christopher Cockerell’s hovercraft has become little more than a passing curiosity, along with the fax machine and the Sony Walkman. The age of the airship ground to a sudden and horrific halt on 6th May 1937 when the Hindenburg burst into flames, killing 35 of the 97 people on board.

These days, airships tend to be used for promotional uses and aerial observation. However, 15 years ago it looked like they were about to emerge as a new compelling solution for heavy transportation.

Cargolifter AG was a German company founded in 1996 to commercialise heavy-lifting dirigibles. The company raised funds and got as far as building a massive hanger on the former Soviet air force base at Brand-Briesen Airfield. The hangar was 360 metres long, 220 metres wide and 106 metres high. It had to be huge – Cargolifter’s CL160 ‘flying crane’ (pictured above) was to be 260 metres long and 65 metres wide, capable of carrying 160-tonne loads across long distances and placing them with precision.

Cargolifter listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in 2000, enabling the German people to share in the exiting project. That same year a smaller helium-filled CL75 airship, with a 75-tonne capacity, was built to prove the concept.

The first CL75 AC transportation balloon was sold to Heavy Lift Canada, Inc to carry oilfield equipment across remote Arctic regions of Canada where the ice roads can only be used for a few months of the year. However, the CL75 AC was destroyed by a storm before entering service and by mid-2002, in the wake of the post 9/11 collapse of financial markets, the money had run out.


CargoLifter AirCrane CL BCS1

 The enterprise crashed to earth just as surely as the Hindenburg had done all those years before. Cargolifter was an exciting vision that seemed that it could bring in a revolution in lifting and transportation. But like Apollo 11 and Concorde, the mundane forces of real life proved more powerful than the imagination of creative engineers.

But wait! What’s this? The Cargolifter name, it seems, has been revived, providing hydrogen balloons for lifting applications. CL CargoLifter GmbH & Co. KGaA is taking a much less ambitious approach than its predecessor. The CargoLifter AirCrane CL BCS1 is based on a 15-metre diameter hydrogen-filled balloon that can lift a one-tonne load to a height of 200 metres and transport it horizontally across several hundred metres.

The dream lives on, although with more modest ambitions.

Steve Rhine

About Steve Rhine

Community Manager at MachineryZone USA - All latest construction news on MachineryZone Mag!