Business

Airships get high-tech makeover

Engine mechanic Gerardo Esparza works on one of the three propeller engines that will propel a new airship in Tustin, Calif.
Engine mechanic Gerardo Esparza works on one of the three propeller engines that will propel a new airship in Tustin, Calif.

LOS ANGELES – Not since the waning days of World War II have the mammoth wooden blimp hangars at the former military base in Tustin, Calif., seen as much airship manufacturing work as they do today.

Inside the 17-story structures that rise above southern Orange County, Worldwide Aeros Corp. is building a blimp-like airship designed for the military to carry tons of cargo to remote areas around the world.

“Nobody has ever tried to do what we’re doing here,” Chief Executive Igor Pasternak said of the 265-foot skeleton being transformed into the cargo airship. “This will revolutionize airship technology.”

In recent years, the affordability of airships as well as developments in high-definition cameras, high-powered sensors and other unmanned technologies have turned these oddball aircraft from curiosities of a bygone era to must-have items for today’s military. And airships increasingly are being used for civilian purposes.

The federal government is buying blimps, zeppelins and spy balloons, and many of these new-generation hybrid “lighter-than-air” aircraft are taking shape across California.

“So much is going on with airships in California now,” Pasternak said. “It wasn’t this way 10 years ago.”

Pasternak’s Montebello, Calif., firm makes airships used for surveillance, advertising and transport. Lockheed Martin Corp. designs and builds airships for commercial use at its secretive Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, Calif. Northrop Grumman Corp. does design work for airships around the Southland region of California but is building them in Florida.

Although these steerable aircraft are sometimes known casually as blimps, there are differences. A blimp is shaped by the gas inside of it, whereas a zeppelin has a rigid skeleton inside. The helium-filled sky balloons, or aerostats, used over Afghanistan are neither blimps nor zeppelins. But they all fall under the term “airship.”

The importance of these next-generation airships became obvious to the Pentagon as increased use of drones highlighted the need for stationary aircraft that could provide constant surveillance, not just overhead flights for a few hours. That’s where these unmanned blimps came into play, with their ability to linger over an area for days at a time.

Currently, there are more than 100 aerostats being used in Afghanistan, up from fewer than 10 in 2004.

Resembling small blimps, these aerostats are tethered to the ground and float thousands of feet above military bases and important roadways. They are big enough that gunfire below won’t take them down. Cameras on aerostats are similar to those on drones and can see for many miles at a fraction of the per-flight-hour cost of a drone. They’re also used to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s an affordable solution,” said Terry L. Mitchell, intelligence futures director at Army headquarters. “You can provide overwatch of the base or troops as they make their way on the ground.”

But these less-sophisticated aerostats don’t have nearly the size or the capability of the next-generation airships that are being designed and manufactured now.

Public perception of airships has been guarded ever since the giant Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937 in front of news cameras. The explosion of the hydrogen-filled German zeppelin killed 36 people and deflated the chances of lighter-than-air ships becoming popular travel.

These days, airships are filled with nonflammable helium, but the Hindenburg tragedy remains vivid to many even today.

The new materials and technology used in today’s airships have greatly increased the vehicles’ capabilities, said Bill Althoff, author of “Sky Ships: A History of the Airship in the United States Navy.”

“The virtue of the platform has endured,” he said.



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