SkyHook: Handling the heavy lifting

November 1, 2008   by Noelle Stapinsky

SkyHook’s JHL-40, a new aerospace innovation, makes remote oil and mining projects accessible and could create more jobs in Alberta.

Photo: SkyHook

Why didn’t I think of that? It’s the question many people have asked since Calgary-based entrepreneur Peter Jess unveiled SkyHook’s JHL-40 ( Jess Heavy Lifter) and announced his partnership with Chicago-based Boeing Co.

The JHL-40 concept started 25 years ago when Jess was working for a petroleum company in the Beaufort Sea and started to think there had to be better ways to transport heavy objects to remote areas not accessible by road or rail.

“The idea of neutral buoyancy came to mind,” says Jess. “Why don’t we take the best attributes from different kinds of aircraft and combine them to see if we can come up with an increase in efficiency?”

The result was family-owned Jessco Logistics. Based out of Resolute Bay, Nunavut, it was a supply, logistics and service company that specialized in providing aircraft, helicopters, ships, equipment, people, camps and fuel to exploration companies in the Arctic.

“Seven years ago, I decided that if I was ever going to make a move with this aircraft idea, I better get going,” says Jess. Many of the assets Jessco had acquired over the years in Resolute Bay, such as its base camp and a lodge it built, were sold and Jess started investing in the engineering of the JHL-40, a blimp-like helium-filled envelope with crew module underneath. It measures 92-metres long, 66-metres wide and 36-metres high, with a 46- to 107-metre cargo line for carrying loads that suspend under the craft.

“It’s not a blimp,” explains Jess, though many news reports have tagged it as a ‘Blimp on Steroids’. “It’s more of a rugby ball shape and it uses lighter-than-air, helicopter and fixed-wing technology” for hauling steel, heavy equipment and trucks to remote areas.

Two years ago, SkyHook was formed by Jess and his wife Judy, their oldest son Matthew as vice-president of operations and their son Ted training to be the machine’s first pilot. In the fall of 2006, Jess introduced the idea to Boeing.

“When Boeing first looked at my cartoons and napkin sketches they were skeptical. But then the light bulbs went on, they said, ‘that’s very simple. Why hasn’t anybody else thought of it?’ I’ve been asked that hundreds of times.”

In early 2007, Boeing met with Jess and they’ve been working together since then.

This hybrid airship is neutrally buoyant, using helium gas to offset the weight of the aircraft. The sling underneath lifts a load using helicopter rotors and thrusting devices.

“It basically allows the envelope to lift the dead weight of the vehicle so you’re not paying to transport the airframe every time you fly. It’s putting all the lifting power, stability and control in the propulsion system,” says Ken Laubsch, Boeing SkyHook program manager and chief engineer.

Unlike conventional aircraft, it doesn’t have control sticks, yolks or pedals. A pilot and co-pilot fly the entire craft by mouse using a fly-by-wire system. It has eight engines—four control the four rotors and the other four run the ducted fans. There are four thrusters underneath, two, of which, make it move back and forth and the other two move it side-to-side. This combination with a computer and the proper alga rhythms, allow the operator to dynamically position the aircraft. Even in bad conditions it holds position accurately. “We can be hit by a 35-knot headwind and a sideways 90 degree gust and keep that same position,” says Jess. “That’s what we simulated and it works like a charm.”

The advantage
This combination of buoyancy and propulsion creates a unique industrial advantage. For example, the largest helicopter in the world is a Russian MI26, which lifts between 19 and 20 tons and uses 22,000 horsepower. It has a gross of 53 tons that can only be carried a short distance. The JHL-40 picks up 40 tons and moves it 321 kilometres, using 20,000 horsepower. When a helicopter is returning from a mission it burns 90% of the fuel, which is only a 10% reduction in fuel burn. The JHL-40 has a 90% fuel burn reduction without its load. And even if all the engines quit or it ran out of fuel, it’s the only powered aircraft—that regulatory people have seen—that doesn’t crash.

Compared to other aircraft, Laubsch says, “We’re a little slower, but it’s still more cost effective. It’s roughly 25% more fuel for 400% more cargo. The JHL-40 can travel 50 to 60 knots with a slung load, compared to a helicopter speed of 70 knots.

And, though it may look like a blimp, there’s no comparison. The Good Year airship, for instance, can only carry a payload of 1,000 pounds and carries a ballast to maintain altitude control. If it’s unhitched it will float up into the sky.

The crew module of the JHL-40 is a live-aboard, seating five crew members. Jess says the design is very similar to that of an icebreaker supply boat. The cockpit is at the front where the two pilots sit. It has a bridge area where you can walk around and look out the windows. There are three more seats for a rigging engineer, a flight engineer and a loadmaster. There is also a galley, sleeping area and head. But Jess points out that the JHL-40 is a utility aircraft that will not be certified to carry paying passengers and it will not carry any freight or payload inside.

SkyHook’s target market is varied, starting with oil and gas exploration, which needs drilling rigs moved.

“A number of major oil companies, mining companies and forestry companies, as well as large logistic and construction companies, have all approached us,” says Jess.

“The forestry business is a big one for us. Mining is turning out to be huge…moving equipment.”

Boeing’s Advanced Systems has begun development on two prototypes at its rotorcraft plant in Ridley Park, Pa. The airship’s first flight will be in approximately 55 months, with commercial release slotted for 2012.

This concept not only decreases the environmental footprint that building roads or rails to remote areas might leave, it’s also capable of travelling up to 1,287 kilometres, making it accessible to companies worldwide.

SkyHook is also in talks with Boeing about building an assembly plant in Alberta, which could create more jobs and bring more aviation production to Canada.

Contact Noelle Stapinsky at

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