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High-tech cargo airship being built in California

Military Airship

This Aug. 17, 2012 photo shows a massive blimp-like airship being built by Worldwide Aeros in a WWII-era blimp hanger at the former Marine Air Station in Tustin, Calif. Construction is complete on the airship that the military hopes to use to carry cargo around the globe, according to a report by The Los Angeles Times on Jan. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Don Bartletti) NO FORNS; NO SALES; MAGS OUT; ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER OUT; LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS OUT; VENTURA COUNTY STAR OUT; INLAND VALLEY DAILY BULLETIN OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT, TV OUT

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From page A5 | January 31, 2013 | 1 Comment

TUSTIN — The massive blimp-like aircraft flies but just barely, hovering only a dozen feet off a military hangar floor during flight testing south of Los Angeles.

Still, the fact that the hulking 230-foot-long Aeroscraft could fly for just a few minutes represents a step forward in aviation, according to the engineers who developed it. The Department of Defense and NASA have invested $35 million in the prototype because of its potential to one day carry more cargo than any other aircraft to disaster zones and forward military bases.

“I realized that I put a little dot in the line of aviation history. A little dot for something that has never been demonstrated before, now it’s feasible,” said flight control engineer Munir Jojo-Verge.

The airship is undergoing testing this month at Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, and must go through several more rounds of flight testing before it could be used in a disaster zone or anywhere else. The first major flight test took place Jan. 3.

The biggest challenge for engineers is making sure the airship will be able to withstand high winds and other extreme weather conditions, Jojo-Verge said.

“Their vulnerability is their large size,” said aviation expert and former Navy test pilot Pete Field. “There’s a lot of surface area so wind affects it tremendously.”

Worldwide Aeros, the company that developed the aircraft, said it also must secure more funding for the next round of flight tests, but is hopeful the Defense Department and others will step in again as investors.

The company says the cargo airship’s potential to carry more cargo more efficiently than ever before would provide the U.S. military with an advantage on the battlefield and greater capacity to save more lives during natural disasters.

The lighter-than-air vehicle is not a blimp because it has a rigid structure made out of ultra-light carbon fiber and aluminum underneath its high-tech Mylar skin. Inside, balloons hold the helium that gives the vehicle lift. Unlike hydrogen, the gas used in the Hindenburg airship that crashed in 1937, helium is not flammable.

The airship functions like a submarine, releasing air to rise and taking in air to descend, said Aeros mechanical engineer Tim Kenny. It can take off vertically, like a helicopter, then change its buoyancy to become heavier than air for landing and unloading.

“It allows the vehicle to set down on the ground. And then when we want to become lighter than air, we release that air and then the vehicle floats and we can allow it to take off,” Kenny said.

In the early 1930s, the Navy operated two airships – the Macon and the Akron – as flying aircraft carriers that could launch and retrieve biplanes. Both were lost to thunderstorms.

If the design team can make the Aeroscraft steady and maneuverable, it would be the ultimate logistics and transport vehicle, carrying tanks, equipment and supplies to bases around the world, Field said.

“I don’t think there’s much doubt about whether it’s going to work or not. It’s physics,” he said. “In the right atmospheric conditions, it would be ideal.”

The project has set abuzz the old hangars at the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin. The structures were built to hold blimps during World War II. Now workers zip around in cherry-pickers, and the airship’s silvery surface shines against the warm tones of the aging wood of the walls.

“You could take this vehicle and go to destinations that have been destroyed, where there’s no ports, no runways, stuff like that. This vehicle could go in there, offload the cargo even if there’s no infrastructure, no landing site for it to land on, this vehicle can unload its whole payload,” said Kenny.

The prototype isn’t intended to carry cargo, though a similar-sized craft could haul about 30 tons. Aeros wants to build a full-size 450-foot-long vehicle that can carry 66 tons of payload.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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  • richJanuary 31, 2013 - 1:06 pm

    It looks like the design could carry as much as a 747 freighter but it will get there a lot slower. I don't see these airships replacing cargo aircraft. We still have the overall mission requirement to get to the scene of trouble overseas ''fastest with the mostest''. An airship can't fulfill those specifications. Only jet aircraft fleets can do that. Remember the steep logistical needs during the buildup to the first Persian Gulf war in 1990 ? (Desert Shield / Desert Storm) Air Ships can't do the job when minutes count.

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