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Flying a smaller, safer blimp at Hindenburg site

By Edward Colimore

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 10:01 a.m. MDT

Chief pilot Mark Kynett flies the U.S. Navy blimp MZ-3A over Ocean County, N.J., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. The Navy's only airship, the MZ-3A provides a slow moving, vibration free and low cost platform for testing sensitive sensors and other research. The 178-foot-long airship has become a common sight for residents of Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Mel Evans, Associated Press

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.

"Helium pressure."

"Green."

"Radio set."

"Green."

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.

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