A blimp-shaped, helium-filled airship considered the world's largest aircraft flew for the first time Wednesday with a short but historic jaunt over an airfield in central England, reports the AP. Engines roaring, the 302-foot Airlander 10 rose slowly into the air from Cardington airfield, 45 miles north of London. A hybrid of blimp, helicopter, and airplane, it is designed to stay aloft for days at a time and has been nicknamed the "flying bum" because of its bulbous front end. The successful journey was a milestone in the development of a vehicle that remains untested as a commercial proposition, with the aim nothing less than to "kickstart a new age of the airship," in the words of the Guardian. Commercial flights are probably five years away.
In Wednesday's test flight, the stately aircraft performed a circuit of the area—watched by hundreds of local people who had parked their cars around the perimeter of the airfield—before touching down about half an hour later as dusk fell. The Airlander is designed to use less fuel than a plane, but carry heavier loads than conventional airships. Its developer, Hybrid Air Vehicles, says it can reach 16,000 feet, travel at up to 90mph, and stay aloft for up to two weeks. The aircraft was initially developed for the US military, which planned to use it for surveillance in Afghanistan. The US blimp program was scrapped in 2013 and since then Hybrid Air Vehicles, a small British aviation firm, has sought funding from government agencies and individual donors. (Read more blimp stories.)