Boeing touts heli-blimp for heavy lifting

When it's airworthy, the JHL-40 will float like a balloon, tote like a helicopter, and look like something out of 1930s sci-fi.

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A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
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JHL-40 at night
The JHL-40 is an uncommon mix of blimp and helicopter. Boeing image by Joe Naujokas

What do you get when you cross a blimp and a helicopter? One potential answer is the Skyhook JHL-40.

The JHL-40, mind you, is still essentially in the blueprints-and-artist's-renderings stage. It's an aircraft that Boeing and its partner Skyhook International are pitching as a short-haul commercial transport rig.

Boeing says that the neutral buoyancy of the JHL-40 would let it hoist and move far greater payloads than can be handled by existing rotorcraft. The aircraft, the companies say, should be able to lift a 40-ton sling load and then transport it 200 miles without refueling, a capacity that would come in handy in harsh, undeveloped regions like the Canadian Arctic where "conventional land and water transportation methods...are inadequate, unreliable and costly."

Here's how it would work: The helium-filled envelope would support the weight of the aircraft itself (fuel included). Four rotors sticking out from the sides of the envelope would provide the lift for the external payload.

The venerable twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicoptor, by comparison, has a range of about 200 miles, but lifts only on the order of about 10 tons.

JHL-40 lifting logs
One industry ripe for the JHL-40 is logging, Boeing says. Boeing image by Joe Naujokas

This being the era in which no product, potential or tangible, can be promoted without a greenish tinge, Boeing also proclaims that the JHL-40 will be "environmentally acceptable" because there would be less of a need to build roads in remote regions and because it would lessen the carbon footprint of target industries like logging, mining, and energy.

The patent on the aircraft belongs to Calgary, Alberta-based Skyhook, and it will be developed and built by Boeing's Advanced Rotorcraft Systems unit. (JHL is short for Jess Heavy Lifter; the patent lists Skyhook's Peter Jess as the inventor.)

Two production prototypes are set to be built at a Boeing facility in Ridley Park, Pa., and the aerospace giant says the aircraft will enter commercial service as soon as it gets the OK from the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada.

As unusual as the JHL-40 appears, this isn't the first such blimp/rotorcraft combination. The pioneering helicopter company Piasecki Aircraft in the 1980s experimented with a very similar demonstration vehicle called the PA-97 Helistat. It was built on a U.S. Navy contract for the U.S. Forest Service, according to Piasecki.