Quebec thinks there’s money in blimps.
The province is spending $30-million to back fledgling French blimp-maker Flying Whales, gambling that the deal will give it a toehold in an industry finally poised for commercial acceptance.
Premier François Legault’s government said Wednesday that it would make a €20-million ($29-million) equity investment in Suresnes, France-based Flying Whales, joining an investor group that includes French public investment bank BPI and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, or AVIC, the country’s principal manufacturer of warplanes and transport aircraft. France’s national forest agency and the Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine are also shareholders.
“There are always risks with any project, but I think this one can be pivotal for Quebec,” Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon told reporters.
Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government sees the Flying Whales partnership as a way to bolster the aerospace industry, one of the province’s economic pillars, at a time that Bombardier Inc. is pulling back from its commercial aviation activities. French giant Airbus SE took over Bombardier’s former C Series jet factory in Mirabel, Que., and Japan’s Mitsubishi Aircraft announced plans in September for an engineering centre in Boisbriand as Quebec looks to new players to reinforce its status as a global aerospace hub.
But investing in an airship company is no sure bet. Flying Whales has no flying prototype built and no paying customers to speak of. The company and its competitors also face the lingering skepticism that comes from years of repeated failures by defunct manufacturers such as Cargolifter AG – skepticism that was evident Wednesday as reporters put both the company and the government on the defensive.
“We’re still in the midst of development,” said Flying Whales managing director Sébastien Bougon. The first airship should be ready in 2022, he said.
“Quebec should invest in projects like this,” Mr. Fitzgibbon said. “You’ve got to control them. You can’t have one a week, but we’ve concluded that this one [makes sense]. … At this point, we have enough comfort that there is a potential market.”
With the investment, Quebec wins the right to play host to a planned airship manufacturing facility supplying North America, as well as the creation of a Flying Whales local subsidiary that will undertake research and development as of next year, the government said. If all works out as planned, 400 new jobs will be created, Mr. Fitzgibbon said.
Some 82 years after the Hindenburg disaster, Flying Whales is counting on advances in technology and awareness of the need for more environmentally friendly transportation to finally prove that the blimp’s revival is nigh.
The company is developing a 154-metre-long, low-emissions airship that will be capable of carrying as much as 60 tonnes of cargo, such as lumber, to and from remote spots such as tree-cutting operations and mines. The rigid-structure ship, which has a cruise speed of 100 kilometres an hour and gains lift with pockets of helium, is being marketed as unique because it can hover and doesn’t require any ground infrastructure for mooring.
It’s not alone, however, in the race to bring a cargo blimp to market. U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin Corp. and several other smaller players are also working on designs and trying to develop business models. Flying Whales has said that the forestry industry alone could justify its investment, but is also eyeing railways and energy companies as potential customers.
The French airship maker’s decision to let AVIC in the door as an investor has also raised concerns. The plane maker has been linked in several media reports to China’s industrial espionage effort and alleged theft of U.S. companies’ intellectual property.
Mr. Bougon played down the worries, saying AVIC is involved only as a shareholder and is not involved in any operations. All the intellectual property being developed in Quebec would be protected because it is controlled by the local subsidiary, which sells to the parent company, he said.