LAKEHURST, N.J. — At 178 feet long and 56 feet high, the massive airship dwarfed members of the ground crew Thursday as they strained to hold on to tethering lines like so many Lilliputians trying to control Gulliver.
Inside the gondola of the Navy's MZ-3A, pilots Mark Kynett and Larry Chambers made the final checks, and then — with two powerful engines roaring at their back — aimed the blimp at a sharp angle into the sky and took off from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County.
The ship's flight near historic Hangar 1 at the Naval Air Engineering Station conjured up images of Germany's ill-fated Hindenburg and its fiery destruction there 75 years earlier. A post marks the spot where the dirigible crashed.
But this airship, which flew about 1,000 feet over Toms River and Seaside Heights on Thursday, is quite different from its much larger cousin, both in design and mission.
Filled with helium, not hydrogen, the craft serves as a flying test laboratory for high-tech sensors and was deployed to Alabama in 2010 to monitor the Gulf oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon.
"We're like the tortoise that never stops," Kynett said.
The airship "stays in the air a long time, lifts a lot of weight, and sips very little fuel," said Bert Race, flight representative for the Airship Systems Engineering Team, part of Naval Air Warfare Center in Patuxent River, Md.
Thursday's 30-minute trip was intended to demonstrate the blimp's capabilities and inform the public — through the media — about the program.
"We're testing (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) sensors and can fly all day long," burning little fuel compared with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, said Doug Abbotts, spokesman for the Aircraft Division of the Naval Air Warfare Center.
The Navy also wanted to clear up some of the public's questions about the blimp's flybys.
"We've gotten calls," Abbotts said. "This will help people know more about what we're doing."
The MZ-3A has been part of the military's renewed interest in airships over the last several years. Its occasional flights over the Philadelphia area and Jersey Shore have drawn stares from onlookers not used to seeing lighter-than-air ships.
In the gondola Thursday, the pilots went over a checklist before takeoff.
"Instruments," Kynett said.
"Green," Chambers replied.
Moments later, the airship — with media representatives aboard — ascended and leveled off.
To your right is the exact spot where the Hindenburg went down, said Tom Worsdale, a spokesman at the Naval Air Engineering Station, as he pointed out a post marking the place where the airborne luxury liner, pride of Adolf Hitler's Germany, was destroyed when its flammable hydrogen gas ignited during a landing in May 1937. Thirty-six people perished. Americans used nonflammable helium for their blimps.
In the skies over the Pine Barrens in Ocean County, Chambers, of Lighthouse Point, Fla., compared the airship's handling and turning to an ocean liner.
"Getting on the ground takes a lot more technique," added Kynett, of Akron, Ohio.
Because it's lighter than air, the blimp can hover over an area for many hours without wasting fuel like a helicopter.
"You can bring back the engines" to an idle, he said. "The capabilities are phenomenal."
"This gives you an observation platform," Chambers added.
Kynett was one of the pilots who flew Coast Guard members over the gulf in 2010 to locate the oil spill and call in ships to clean it up. The blimp can ascend thousands of feet and cruise at 45 knots while carrying up to 10 people, including the pilot.
"We took eight-hour flights and were sometimes out (from land) 20 miles or more," he said.
Oil-spill observers found the aircraft's low speed particularly well-suited to the mission. The blimp is capable of staying airborne for more than 12 hours.
"You can fly in a lot of weather," Chambers said. "But thunderstorms are not the airship's best friend.
"You can't fly over rain and fog. And ice and snow are a no-no since they build up" on the ship.
The Navy blimp now is used for sensor testing at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and will return there before eventually heading to Florida by December, Race said.
At the same time, the Army has been evaluating a much larger lighter-than-air craft at Lakehurst's Hangar 6. About the length of a football field, the Army demonstrator is known as the LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle) and can be manned or unmanned.
It's being assessed for use as a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering tool for military activities, as well as for border control and antidrug operations. The ship can provide continuous coverage for up to 21 days and rise to up to 20,000 feet above sea level.
An unmanned 370-foot-long Air Force airship project called the Blue Devil, considered for use in Afghanistan, was canceled this year because of technical challenges and higher-than-expected costs. The surveillance and reconnaissance craft was ordered dismantled in June at its hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Blimp operations continue, though, at the joint base in New Jersey.
The MZ-3A was flown for the first time in 2007 and received its throwback Navy markings and colors in October 2011 to celebrate the centennial of Naval aviation.
The nearby Army airship, meanwhile, was assembled and flown for the first time in August.
Both are small compared with their 1930s predecessors, including the 800-foot-long Hindenburg.
There has not been a Navy airship in Hangar 1 since 1962, when Cold War-era blimps were decommissioned, officials said. The Navy's lighter-than-air program began there in 1921.
"This is one of the few places in the country that has hangars this size," Race said of the massive structures at Lakehurst. "We're here for maintenance once a year."
The MZ-3A is committed to Army testing through the end of March and is now looking for "other customers," Race said. "I have plenty of leads."
On Thursday, Kynett and Chambers guided the ship toward Seaside Heights at about 25 mph, then turned, as the gondola gently rocked, to return to the base with a tailwind that picked the speed up to at least 40 mph.
"You can see McGuire Air Force Base on the horizon," Chambers said when the base was about 35 minutes away by car.
At Lakehurst, a dozen ground crew members waited for the blimp's return. Using a wheel between the pilot seats to point the ship up and down, and two floor foot pedals to make it turn right and left, Kynett headed for a landing.
He used the two engines to push the blimp to the ground and reversed them to stop it as the ground crew scurried to capture the lines hanging down from the ship, and grab hold of a tether on the nose, which was attached to a mast on a truck.
"Other than flying in bad weather, there's nothing scary" about piloting a blimp, Chambers said.
"It's the safest aircraft in the sky," Kynett said.
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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com