Nunavut’s biggest airline is taking its first step toward launching airships in Canada’s North.
Canadian North president and CEO Michael Rodyniuk signed a memorandum of understanding with the France-based company Flying Whales, which has an office in Quebec, at the Paris Airshow in late June.
“We decided that we were going to work with them to be able to help them develop an aircraft that’s going to be able to fly in the Arctic and [Canada’s] North,” Rodyniuk said.
Canadian North hasn’t contributed any money to Flying Whales and the project is only in the design phase. The earliest that design will be complete is 2025. It will need to be approved by Transport Canada.
“I think the partnership that we’ve created is really interesting because you’ve got an operator helping in the development stage of a new … airframe that’s going to be a game changer in the North,” Rodyniuk said.
For its part, Flying Whales described the agreement in a news release as something to be proud of. It said it hopes Canadian North can provide it with a better understanding of what’s needed — and what challenges lie ahead — for transporting cargo to remote areas of the North.
Giving wings to a long-discussed idea
The idea of airships has been floated in Canada for years. The Quebec government has also signed a deal with Flying Whales, contributing $30 million to get the idea off the ground.
Rodyniuk argues airships could “dramatically reduce the cost” of goods in the North.
“If we can have sort of a flying warehouse that flies up on hybrid electric power, that doesn’t need the infrastructure on the ground necessarily to deliver its payload, we can dramatically reduce the cost of goods in the North by flying them up on an airship,” Rodyniuk said.
Flying Whales airships use 180,000 cubic metres of helium to stay afloat, as opposed to a jet engine on an airplane.
Rodyniuk said airships could save money on fuel, ultimately reducing the price of cargo when it hits the shelves.
There are many challenges when it comes to flying an airship in the North. High winds, cold temperatures and unpredictable weather all present difficulties.
Barry Prentice, the director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba has been trying to bring airships to the North for two decades.
An airship only needs a quarter of the fuel and airplane needs, Prentice said.
“There really isn’t a good substitute in terms of airplanes,” he said. “The North needs a better form of freight transport.”
Prentice also noted airships aren’t currently regulated in Canada.
“There is still no regulations in Canada that would allow a person to be qualified to fly an airship here. You couldn’t even get a certification or a mechanic’s licence to work on an airship,” Prentice said.
Flying Whales airships can carry about 60,000 kilograms of cargo, which is about 30 per cent more than Canadian North’s airplanes can take, Rodyniuk said.
But airships also need specific infrastructure to offload that cargo, since they technically float instead of landing.
Prentice said airships can stay in the air “for weeks at a time.”
“The wind can blow really hard at times … you’re not going to fly airships on those days,” Prentice said.
He added that “the operating window for an airship is about the same as an airplane.”
Rodyniuk said airships could also bring mobile hospitals to communities in the North,
“A fully serviceable hospitals can show up in a community and remain there before moving to another community,” he said.
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