A Manitoba professor’s ambitious plan to use ultra-light airships to ferry supplies into remote northern communities has been grounded by Mother Nature.

Barry Prentice’s research hangar was ripped apart by winds up to 120 kilometres per hour Wednesday. All three of his prototype airships were damaged inside the uninsured building and two may be beyond repair.

“It’s like losing an old friend to lose the airship. We built that over five years by ourselves, our own hands,” said Prentice, president of Buoyant Aircraft Systems International. The company had scheduled test flights for later this year.

Powerful gusts tore through southern Manitoba Wednesday, snapping hydro lines, flipping vehicles, uprooting trees, and blowing the roofs off several homes. Environment Canada confirmed a tornado had touched down in the province Wednesday evening.

“Our building had been able to survive five years of storms, and some pretty bad ones, but this on just proved too much,” said Prentice.

The violent weather separated the building from the bolts that held it to the ground, spreading the fruits of five years of Prentice’s research across a large field. The welcome mat from the front door is one of the only things still in place.

Prentice says he plans to rebuild after sifting through the heaps of wreckage. The storm spared a solar unit as well as some of the office space. His research documents were somehow left intact. Everything else will have to be paid for out of pocket.

“We couldn’t get insurance on the building. We couldn’t get insurance on the air ship and its contents. We had to take the risk,” said Prentice.


Buoyant Aircraft Systems International believes transport airships are ideally suited to replace cargo flights and ice roads as the main supply lines to Canada’s remote northern regions.

The company says the tools, techniques, materials, and avionics used to build airplanes can be adapted to unmanned airships that can fly to far flung communities year round.

“We are convinced this is the right path,” Prentice said. “It’s inevitable and we need to get this research so we can actually design the air ship that is going to be successful in the future.”

According to BASI’s research, delivering cargo with airships is considerably more cost efficient than conventional cargo planes, or replacing ice roads with all-weather passages. The company estimates an airship with a 50 tonne payload could fly up to 400 kilometres to service scores of communities far away from the nearest road.

The cost of flying in goods and basic provisions is a major concern in sparsely populated areas of Canada’s north. Many regions are forced to rely solely on cargo planes during the winter months.

Exorbitant prices for fruits and vegetables have put a balanced diet out of reach for many families in northern regions. More than one-third of households in Nunavut lack access to safe and healthy food, according to Statistics Canada. That level is four times the national average.