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A new era for airships

Lighter-than-air craft, long since mothballed by military planners, may be on the verge of a major comeback
Some four decades ago, advancements in technology ended the Defense Dept.s long and successful use of blimps for surveillance, antisubmarine warfare, and other missions for which the silent, semistationary airships were ideal. Now, roughly 80 years after the Navy commissioned its first lighter-than-air vessel, the airship seems poised to make a potentially major comeback. Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems & Sensors (known as MS2) in Akron, Ohio, is now owner of the Goodyear blimp facility that produced a fleet of airships for the Navy during WW II. The company is in Phase 2 (design and risk reduction) of a $40-million Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) to design and produce a high-altitude airship (HAA) prototype. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is managing the ACTD on behalf of the Defense Dept., the Army, the U.S. Northern Command, and the Dept. of Homeland Security. A successful critical design review in late June will be the preamble to a Phase 3 production and test award. Lockheed Martin hopes to begin flight testing in the summer of 2006 on an unmanned, nonrigid helium airship that can provide a platform for up to 2 tons of multiple mission payloads at a nominal altitude of

65,000 ft for a month. With no provisions for a live crew, it also must be able to operate autonomously or by remote control.
HAA prototype With a length of 500 ft and a 150-ft diameter, HAA will be one of the largest airships ever built. The record still belongs to the ill-fated Hindenburg (804 ft long); the largest military airships, at more than 600 ft, were the Navys equally star-crossed USS Akron and USS Macon. HAA will, however, nearly equal the Hindenburgs 6 million ft3 of gas for lift, but will rely on 5.6 million ft3 of inert helium rather than the Zeppelins volatile hydrogen. With a

MS2 is now using the Goodyear blimp facility that produced a fleet of airships for the Navy during WW II.

by J.R. Wilson Contributing writer 27

Copyright 2004 by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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70-75-kt transit speed at altitude, it also will come very close to the Hindenburgs top speed. Thin-film photovoltaics on the hull surface will feed the ships solar regenerative batterybased power system. Those will likely be paired with new fuel cell technology such as that being developed by NASA to provide the multiple kilowatts of power needed around the clock both for propulsion and for an extensive system of cutting-edge sensors. The beauty of an airship is you dont have to package all the payload in one place, Ron Browning, MS2 surveillance systems business development director, tells Aerospace America. So in achieving a 4,000-lb goal, you could have multiple sensors totaling that or less, and they may or may not be placed in the same location. You can put sensors on the top, bottom, or sides. At that altitude, your visual line of sight is about 600 km to the horizon, so applications such as surveillance and communications certainly arise as strong candidates. Exactly what sensors to provide what type of surveillance or communicationto other air vehicles, to satellites, to the groundare still in the CONOPS [concept of operations] development process. But the airship will provide a persistent, fairly large payload capability that can remain quasigeostationary for extended periods. The ACTD goal is one month, and it is likely to spiral up to many months or longer. A major ACTD performance goal is enabling the ship to stay within 2 km of its target position at least 50% of the time and within 100 km 95% of the time. The HAAs four elecBallonets essentially act as ballast tanks, filled with ordinary heavy air. As the blimp gains altitude, the lighter helium within the main envelope expands; air in the ballonets is expelled at a rate sufficient to maintain constant pressure within the hull.

trically powered, vectored propulsion pods will activate its propellers as needed, to provide both pitch and yaw control as well as lateral movement, dealing with changing winds or any other environmental factor that causes it to drift. Given its size, such movement is virtually inevitable, but program engineers express confidence in the airships stationkeeping system. Flying high Having MDA as the lead on a blimp resurrection project may seem an odd choice. But agency officials say the perceived applications for an HAA are extremely broadincluding a potential role in the nations future missile defense architecture toward the end of the decade. I think they felt they were in the best position to manage the technology and bring it to fruition in the defined time frame, says Browning. The MDA program manager has representation from all the agencies that will become engaged once we get through the ACTD process. The long line-of-sight capability at a 60,00075,000-ft operating altitude offers a broad range of potential applications, from communications and weather/environmental monitoring to shortand long-range missile warning, surveillance, and target acquisition. It also puts the HAA well above the upper limit of FAA-controlled airspace (60,000 ft) and thus out of the way of air traffic. In addition, it is above most weather patterns and in a region of generally benign winds. The physics of airships at 65,000 ft are basically the same as those of the low-flying Goodyear blimp, relying on the static lift of helium to get to altitude. Inside the main gas bag are smaller bagscalled ballonetsthat essentially act as ballast tanks, filled with ordinary heavy air. As the blimp gains altitude, the lighter helium within the main envelope expands; air in the ballonets is expelled at a rate sufficient to maintain constant pressure within the hull. During descent, the process is reversed, with air pulled into the ballonets from outside as the helium contracts. The outer hull of the vehicle is a rugged fabric sandwich of different materials that give it sufficient strength to withstand the environment and all external loads on the airship including sensors attached at any point. The ballonets material, which is never exposed to the outside and has no flight loads, is a lighter, although still sturdy, fabric. Lockheed Martin expects the HAA will ascend at about 1,000 ft/min, reaching operational altitude in 60-90 min. Because adding air to the ballonets is a slower process than expelling it is, descent from altitude to the recovery area will

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take 4-7 hr, depending upon the prevailing weather conditions. As with most aircraft, the preference will be for calm air and clear skies on both launch and recovery. Given its size and structure, there are limits on the wind speeds for both operations. Just moving it out of the hangar could become a difficult and dangerous procedure if strong winds develop unexpectedly. For that reason, it is likely any users will try to locate HAA base operations in the most predominantly calm weather zones possible. While the military would be the primary user, other segments of governmentespecially the Dept. of Homeland Securityand some civilian entities have shown interest in the HAA. There is a lot of potential with that much of a view. The HAA is relocatable, reconfigurable, and recastable. You can command it to go where you want it to go geographically, albeit at relatively slow speeds compared to conventional aircraft, Browning says. It is possible they will be prepositioned, perhaps one near Hawaii or one somewhere in Southeast or Southwest Asia, so it has a much shorter distance to go than if it came from CONUS [continental U.S.]. You can bring it down to repair or change out the payload, then send it back up and retask as needed. Depending on what sensors are applied, the airship will go through at least two evolutions. For the ACTD vehicle, the sensors may not look much different from what are now on other aircraft. But as time goes by, sensor types dedicated to leveraging the capabilities of an HAA will be developed. How those sensors do their job and transmit data will be part of the evolving process. Development and potential Work on the HAA will be performed at the historic Airdock in Akron, the 1,175-ft-long airship factory where Goodyear built the Navys first airships. It will require the facilitys full 211-ft height and 325-ft width to accommodate the massive HAA and the equipment and people required to build it. That team will include several Lockheed Martin business units and industry leaders in autonomous control systems, regenerative power systems, envelope material, and systems integration. Also on the team is StratCom International (Keedysville, Md.), headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative and a past NASA associate administrator. Abrahamson founded the company in 1998 to pursue what he saw as a new potential for airships that take advantage of innovative materials and technologies. He also

has held talks with governWe share the Missile Defense Agencys ment and industry leaders in India about the possibil- vision for the high-altitude airship and the ity of using airships to help many roles it can serve over our domestic expand that nations limited borders and distant theaters of operation. communications infrastrucIts long time on station and ability to carry ture and provide coastal different payloads will provide multiand border surveillance. The latter are among mission capabilities not possible with other the potentials the U.S. gov- assets. When launched, the HAA will comernment sees in HAA. The mence a new era in flight. North American Aerospace Defense Command, known Al Barber, vice president and as NORAD, has estimated it general manager, MS2 would take 10 HAAs to provide overlapping radar coverage of all maritime and border approaches to the continental U.S. That is seen as a major improvement in the ability of the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, military, and others to curtail illegal entry and drug-smuggling, as well as to bolster overall homeland security efforts. However, the HAA is not the only sign of new life in dirigibles, as the Pentagon opens up to new and oldtechnologies to help fight the war on terrorism. Ahead of its time? In 1999, NASA selected a piloted, partially buoyant airship as one of its Revolutionary Concepts (RevCon) projects, intended to bolster investigations into high-risk, breakthrough technologies that might lead to revolutionarybut successfuldepartures from traditional air vehicle designs. The AeroCraft effort is seen as a means to dramatically improve the global movement of large shipments now handled by slower ocean freighters and far more expensive cargo aircraft. The project brought together Californias NASA Dryden and Ames centers, the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif., MicroCraft in Tullahoma, Tenn., and American Blimp in Hillsboro, Ore. The AeroCraft concept called for an 800-ftlong hybridpart blimp, part airplanewith three times the cargo capacity and twice the speed of what was then the leading evolutionary blimp program in the world, the CargoLifter CL160. That German program, begun two years before AeroCraft, was claiming a 160-ton payload capacity and a cruise speed of 60 mph for distances up to 6,000 mi. Both programs had the attention of commercial global freight servicessuch as FedEx and DHLas well as the military. But the proposed scale model prototype flight demonstration for AeroCraft never happened, and Skunk
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The long view


At the beginning of the 20th century, many people expected the skies to be filled with great airships, carrying passengers, cargoeven troops, in time of warquietly and comfortably to and from all points on Earth. Hindenburg That dream ended with the fiery explosion of the Hindenburg in May 1937. The pride of the Third Reich, it was the largest aircraft ever to have flownnearly 804 ft long and 135 ft in diameter. The loss of the German airship, which became known as the Titanic of the Sky, was far more devastating to lighter-than-air passenger service than the loss of the unsinkable luxury liner was to sea travel. Although passengers were not hauling their suitcases onboard, airships buoyed by inert heliumrather than the Hindenburgs volatile hydrogenfound great favor with both the military and advertising executives. Zeppelin, which produced the Hindenburg, also was partUSS Macon nered with Goodyear in the 1920s to produce two rigid airships for the U.S. Navythe USS Akron and the USS Macon. More than two football fields long, each was designed to be a flying aircraft carrier and required 6.5 million ft3 of helium to lift its gross weight of more than 400,000 lb. Both were lost in storms within two years of being launched, however, so the concept was never proven. Their loss also marked the beginning of the end for rigid airships. Goodyear gained an independent reputation building dozens of surveillance and antisubmarine airships for the Navy, ironically to protect merchant ships and convoys from German submarines. Flying low, slow, andto submarinesinvisible, the blimps provided an early warning system against Hitlers underwater Wolf Packs. Scanning the ocean for surfacing submarines, the airship crews would Goodyear blimp radio sighting positions to the convoys and their defenders. Navy airships remained in service, primarily as radar picket ships, through the 1950s, but electronic surveillance technology ultimately trumped their capabilities. The last of the lighter-than-air naval fleet was decommissioned in 1962. Advertisers, however, have never lost faith in the breed. The first floating billboard was the Pilgrim, which began barnstorming across the U.S. in 1925 to promote Goodyear tires. While that name has become almost synonymous with blimps, it is not alone. Fuji Film, Budweiser, and MetLife, among others, have taken to the air with their own blimps or, more precisely, nonrigid airships. Blimps are essentially giant gas bags that maintain their shape by internal overpressure, which restricts them to lowaltitude operations. Another nonrigid approach is the hot air or thermal airship, a cousin to the hot air balloon, but with a blimp-like shape, fins, and propellers. The thermal airship was pioneered in 1972 by Cameron Balloons, the worlds largest manufacturer of traditional hot air balloons. They are primarily used for advertising, but also have become popular in aerial racing. Today there are more than two dozen airship manufacturers around the world, including Zeppelin, which at one point became a generic name for rigid airships. The Navy briefly considered reviving the concept of military airships in the 1980s, which led Loral to buy the rights to all Goodyear Aerospace airship designs. When the Navy research program was cancelled in 1992, Loral sold the type-certificates to Lockheed Martin. Under its various owners, the original Goodyear facility at Akron, Ohio, has produced more than 300 airships in the past three-quarters of a centurymore than any other company in the world. And the possibility that its product may yet return to military service looms large.

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Works shut the program down without elaboration in 2001. A year later, CargoLifter suffered a similar fate as funding evaporated. Ironically, it was only one more year before the world had a live demonstration of one of the best arguments for such a system, especially if it could be modified to carry hundreds or even thousands of combat troops at a time. In the run-up to and prosecution of Operation Iraqi Freedom, virtually every available cargo and tanker aircraft in the U.S. inventory was called into strenuous duty. And for only the second time in history, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet of commercial airliners was activated, flying 1,625 missions in four months to airlift more than a quarter-million troops into the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. That requirement was at least partly responsible for the DARPA decision to seek industry input on the feasibility and viability of a large lifting air vehicle able to transport a Unit of Action [UA] from Fort to Fight. As Aerospace America went to press, DARPA had conducted an Industry Day to identify interest in and qualifications for innovative concepts that

could lead to a future program to develop what


DARPA is calling the Walrus air vehicle. (Wal-

rus is not an acronym and its origin is something of a mystery.) The Walrus concept includes a strict admonition to avoid dead-end technologies that would lead to the same obsolescence that grounded the Navy blimps in the 1960s. As envisioned by DARPA, Walrus would be capable of transporting a UA (the Objective Force Armys term for a faster, more lethal, and somewhat smaller brigade-size unit) around the globe or across a theater, without refueling, and landing at unimproved sites. The total lift capacity of 500 tons would enable both troop and materiel transport in a way that would greatly reduce the problem of reconstituting units whose personnel arrived by commercial airliner, smaller equipment by military cargo jet, and heavy equipment by ship. If either HAA or Walrus can survive funding battles and technology glitches, the return to service of lighter-than-air craft, long relegated to museums and sports activities, will be one of the biggest comebacks in military history.

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