Flying a smaller, safer blimp at Hindenburg site

By Edward Colimore

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"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.



Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com

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