by DAVID AXE
Military air travel can be one of the most exciting things in the world: catapulting off an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, churning low over the Afghan countryside in a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter, spiraling down for a tactical landing in a C-130 bound for Baghdad. By comparison, my Zeppelin ride was almost tranquil.
To be clear, the German-built Zeppelin NT on which I was a passenger, motoring low over the San Francisco area, is not a military aircraft. It belongs to Airship Ventures, a two-year-old tour and advertising operator based an old Navy blimp base at Moffett Field in northern California. But Eureka, as Airship Venture’s Zeppelin is known, is an unofficial test model for the coming renaissance in military lighter-than-air operations.
Nearly 50 years after the last U.S. military airship in regular service was decommissioned, lighter-than-air craft are making a big comeback. To gain a sense of how our balloon-based aerial future might look and feel, I hitched a ride on Eureka for a 90-minute tour. Airship Venture’s flight-ops officer Jim Dexter was at the helm, wearing a leather bomber jacket and sunglasses.
My first impressions were how quiet and comfortable Eureka was — and how slow. For our circuit around Moffett Field and over Stanford University, we cruised at just 35 miles per hour. With around a dozen passengers and crew and a one-ton payload, Eureka tops out at 50 miles per hour. Cars sped past us on the highways a thousand feet below. It’s the nature of lighter-than-air travel to be low and slow — almost ponderously slow.
But the time premium you pay for airship travel buys you several advantages: airships are highly fuel-efficient for a ton-mile; as long as they avoid storms, they endure few stresses in flight, affording them extremely long service lives; they can be scaled up to a very, very large size at low cost compared to airplanes. In terms of cost per ton-mile, with delivery time factored in, airships fit a niche within the wide gap between sea vessels and cargo planes.
It’s for that reason that the U.S. Navy is mulling the return of large airships for military missions. In coming decades, lighter-than-air vessels much larger than the 250-foot-long Eureka could become a fixture in U.S. military transportation networks.
Airships were a hot military item in the 1920s and ’30s. They carried crews of up to 100 people on long-range scouting missions, spotting ships on behalf of naval commanders. Two U.S. Navy rigid airships, Akron and Macon, were even modified with an internal hangar for carrying four biplane fighters that could be launched and recovered in flight. But a string of deadly accidents, almost all of them weather-related, destroyed Akron and Macon and several other airships worldwide, killing hundreds of crewmen. Airships lost favor with the military, although their extinction was a slow one: the last U.S. Navy blimp, a radar picket, was dismantled in 1962.
Today the weather that defeated the ’20s and ’30s airships is less of a threat. Superior weather forecasting and super-accurate, GPS-based navigation allow airships to avoid all but the most bizarre weather events. Dexter, at 53 one of America’s most experienced airship pilots, said these advancements have changed attitudes. “The government is very keen on airships.”
He should know. Following stints flying Goodyear blimps in the U.S. and Zeppelins in Germany, a few years ago Dexter was one of the contract pilots hired to support an early experiment in the Navy’s plan to restore airship operations. In 2006, the Navy bought an A-170 airship from American Blimp Corporation, assigned it to test squadron VX-20 and conducted a series of experiments at Patuxent River, outside Washington, D.C. VX-20 came back with “mixed reviews,” Dexter said. As a traditional fixed-wing squadron, VX-20 “didn’t want to take on responsibility for the airship itself,” regardless of any long-term benefits of lighter-than-air travel.
So the Navy moved their new, 175-foot airship to Lakehurst, New Jersey, the old home of the East Coast airships back in the early 20th century. (Moffett was the West Coast base.) There, the Navy Research Laboratories assumed responsibility for future airship tests. “It’s a better fit,” Dexter said.
Meanwhile, the Navy began crunching theorizing about possible directions manned airship development might take within the military. In September 2009, Steve Huett from the Navy’s Advanced Development Program Office published a report describing a future large airship with a 30-500-ton payload that could “embark a ready-to-fight combat force … at its base of origin” and “transport [it] without loss of unit cohesion” to “locations selected to minimize the possibility for a hostile reception, ready for immediate combat operations.”
Airship transport from the U.S. to any war zone would take place “within a week” and would be “runway and seaport independent.” The major nemesis, Huett wrote, would be “high wind.”
Back aboard $7-million Eureka, we were halfway through our languid Bay-area tour. Dexter demonstrated the airship’s controls. Propellers mounted to the airship’s rigid, internal skeleton can vector backwards or downward for directional control, but trim and altitude are adjusted by shifting fuel across different tanks and tweaking the pressure in a series of bladders, each holding Helium or air and contained within the Zeppelin’s outside envelope. Controlling Eureka requires only gentle movements. “There’s almost no pilot fatigue,” Dexter told me.
Nor does the airship itself suffer much fatigue. The outside envelope can wear out, and should be replaced every seven or eight years, but the main structure and dynamic components work very gently. Dexter said he knows of some advertising blimps with basic frames that are more than 40 years old and still work just fine. Fixed-wing aircraft, by contrast, require frequent, deep maintenance to counteract flight stress. Helicopters last only 20 years or so, on average, before the constant vibration tears them apart. In the coming era of declining defense resources, airships could make great economic sense.
The way ahead depends on the Navy’s experiments, any ongoing Pentagon studies and the continuing safe operations of civilian airships like Eureka. “What’s the prospect?” Dexter asked rhetorically. “If there is a market and a need to get heavy equipment from point A to point B, an airship could easily be designed to do the job. With today’s weather technology and GPS, you could easily avoid the weather.”
Huett seems to have banked on those conditions when he proposed the battalion-hauling Navy airship in September. All the technology for a vessel of that type would be ready by 2011, Huett wrote.
“I’ve been in the industry a long time and seen a lot of changes,” Dexter said, inscrutable behind his sunglasses. “It’s encouraging to see this renewed interest.”