View Full Version : The blimp is back

10-01-2009, 03:50 PM
The blimp is back

Report: Andrew Simms

THERE is no denying that the stock of the blimp has deflated dramatically since the glory age of the airship in the early 1900s.

Once heralded as the transportation of the future and anticipated to become so popular that the art deco spire of New York’s Empire State Building was originally intended as a mooring point, the airship has more recently been relegated to hovering over sporting events and advertising Goodyear tyres.

However, with the help of British expertise and at the request of the US Army, plans are under way to relaunch the military career of the blimp.

Having served as an aerial scout and primitive bomber with British, American and German forces during the two world wars, the airship is once again in vogue.

And lighter-than-air technology has already played its part in the international effort to defeat the Taliban through a state-of-the-art observation balloon boasting advanced surveillance capabilities, which is deployed several thousand feet above the Afghan capital of Kabul. Anchored at Bala Hissar, the aerostat gave coalition commanders a bird’s eye view of the city – and more importantly the movements of insurgents – during August’s election.

But the blue-sky thinking of the major defence contractors goes far beyond tethered balloons. Raytheon recently unveiled its first Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) – one of 12 helium-filled blimps being developed to provide cover for US ground forces. Equipped with radars capable of detecting threats up to 300 miles away, JLENS will be able to stay in flight for 30 days at a time and has been designed to track enemy missiles.

In turn, Lockheed Martin is building a prototype of a radar-equipped airship. Scheduled to take its maiden flight in 2012, this solar/fuel cell-powered system will operate at altitudes of 60,000ft and be able to track cruise missiles at 600km and dismounted soldiers at 300km. It is estimated that such a near-space asset will be capable of surveying millions of cubic miles of airspace.

The company is also exploring the production of a Hybrid Unmanned Air Vehicle (HUAV). Envisaged as a means of moving equipment – and even troops – in low-threat military environments, it is anticipated that the HUAV will be able to lift loads of up to 12,000lbs at 10,000ft.

Timothy Blunck, a flight test engineer for Lockheed Martin, told Soldier that talk of a return to airships was more than just hot air.

“Is this old technology? Yes it is, but it is proven technology which, when combined with advancements in other fields, you can do a lot of mind-blowing stuff with,” he said. “What lighter-than-air technology gives you is a far greater degree of persistence and economical vehicles which can save on manpower.

“You can launch an airship once and forget about it, unlike smaller UAVs which you have to pull back a day or two later. With these platforms you can lift the scale and perform theatre-wide missions.”

A series of high-profile accidents, such as the burning of the Hindenburg, sped the decline of airships last time round, but Blunck insisted the use of helium rather than hydrogen and advancements in durability means that the blimp bubble is unlikely to burst soon.

“There is a slight assumption of air supremacy, but for the US and UK that is not usually a problem,” he added. “That said, at 60,000ft there is not a great deal of traffic or weaponry about. Even the HUAV, which would be flying at 20,000ft in a tactical scenario, would be beyond the reach of most mobile weapons.”

Operating out of harm’s way, blimps could soon be deployed in a host of roles not viable for fixed-wing aircraft – taking to the battlefield as either a communications relay, spy satellite, missile defence system, floating refuelling station or even a portable airstrip.

And so, while the exact flight path may not yet be known, after more than seven decades in the hangar it seems that the sky is once again the limit for the airship.