For those of us of a certain age, the Kenneth More film Reach for the Sky epitomised how drive, originality and determination to change things for the better could achieve extraordinary results – and in my line of work I’m privileged to help businesses soar to new heights every day.
One that has managed to do this, both literally and figuratively, is Bedford-based Hybrid Air Vehicles, whose Airlander is ‘rethinking the skies’, as the company’s website puts it.
I caught up with CEO Tom Grundy (pictured right) recently, who told me more about Airlander’s success – and how valuable Bedfordshire Chamber’s help has been in enabling the business both to weather challenging times and position itself for success.
What is Airlander – and why?
Airlander is an innovative, multi-function aircraft with a bold vision: air travel with no jets, no pistons, no kerosene, and no exhaust pollution. In fact, not even a conventional wing!
For, as Tom explains to me, this is anything but an aeroplane. Looking similar to an airship, it is actually one giant wing in itself, with additional but controlled buoyancy (it doesn’t float away) provided by delicate interplay between helium, control surfaces and motors.
This arrangement is the ‘hybrid’ in the company’s name, and Tom is clear that it takes flight into a whole new realm – not just of sustainability (up to 90% fewer emissions per passenger-km), but, from the operators’ viewpoint, flexibility, cost-effectiveness and infrastructure savings.
Flight, but better
Forget huge gantries restraining a floating zeppelin by its nose, says Tom. Airlander 10 can land directly on the ground, where it can unload up to 10 tonnes of cargo or discharge up to 100 passengers with no need for jet bridges or stair cars. And as it doesn’t require a runway, it takes up much less space than aeroplanes need.
At the same time, it can also take off from, and land on, water – which Tom says is a game-changer for poorly connected localities globally.
But getting Airlander off the ground in a financial and logistical sense was challenging – and this is where Tom tells me the Chamber membership delivered particular value.
Tom explains that although the company is an SME (it currently employs around 70 people), its financial and operational characteristics are very different from a typical company of that size.
Design and manufacturing are cases in point. The Airlander is a vast vehicle packed full of precision engineering, so highly specialist design and manufacturing facilities are imperative.
With the help of the Chamber and our connection to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) network, the company was able to access business expertise and build critical funding relationships both within and outside Bedfordshire.
These enabled it to produce successful investment cases supporting both the business’s design and corporate office in Bedford, and a specialist manufacturing facility in Doncaster, to be part-funded by South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority.
Result: the company is now on the path to delivering 12 Airlanders, for passenger, logistics, luxury tourism, and communications and surveillance use, per year.
Ten Airlanders are already reserved by one of the largest European regional airlines, and Airlander is being studied for use across Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, including Orkney.
Next stop, according to Tom, is net-zero connections for remote regions, island nations and communities across the world.
The Chamber speaks, government listens
“I was keen to build links to Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce from the very start,” said Tom. “The Chamber has been excellent at recognising the special challenges that non-typical SMEs face.
“But it’s a strategic relationship that goes way beyond supply chain; it influences policy and gets our voice heard by government, too. The pressure the Chamber applied on government to create the Future Fund during the pandemic, for example, delivered a lifeline for us, as on paper we didn’t meet the government’s existing pandemic lending criteria.”
Tom also says he believes Bedfordshire Chamber is unique in the way it operates both across groups and also upwards into the national agenda, and he praises the Chamber leader- ship for being ‘absolutely brilliant, energetic, always out there, talking to businesses and helping them with the challenges they face’.
Hybrid Air Vehicles might be rethinking the skies, but it’s most certainly also reaching for them, just as the old film exhorted us all to do. And we at the Chamber are proud to be contributing at least some of the necessary lift.
Every business can fly
But it’s important to understand that you don’t need to be an advanced engineering SME like Hybrid Air Vehicles to benefit from Chamber membership.
Amongst our member businesses, you’ll find every vertical from accounting to clothing, marketing to translation, jewellery to telecommunications, and many more.
And whatever your line or size of business, you’ll have access to networking (both ours and our partners’) to build relationships, Meet the Buyer events to deliver targeted new business opportunities, online learning resources, webinars, workshops, specialist import and export advice, and much more besides.
Plus, as Tom says, we are literally out there, every day, talking to businesses, understanding critical and emerging issues, canvassing opinion, and, through BCC, making your views on these topics clear – and fighting your corner on them – at the top table of government. Join us today. It’s time for take-off.