U.S. military blimp set to revolutionise warfare makes first successful test flight

Damien Gayle – Daily Mail Jan 30, 2013

These are the first pictures inside the cockpit of the new U.S. military-funded airship that is set to revolutionise long-haul flying.

The massive blimp-like aircraft made its first successful test flight after hovering a dozen feet off the floor of the former military hangar during flight testing south of Los Angeles.

The fact that the hulking Aeroscraft could fly for just a few minutes represents a step forward in aviation, according to the engineers who developed it.

Sitting in the high-tech cockpit, flight control engineer Munir Jojo-Verge told of his pride at being involved in the groundbreaking project.

‘I realised that I put a little dot in the line of aviation history. A little dot for something that has never been demonstrated before, now it’s feasible,’ he told the Associated Press.

The high-tech Aeroscraft blimp is now  nearly ready for flight testing in the open, having completed its ‘first float’ manoeuvres inside its colossal hangar in Orange County, California.

The biggest challenge for engineers is making sure the airship will be able to withstand high winds and other extreme weather conditions, Mr Jojo-Verge said.

The Department of Defense and NASA have invested $35 million in project because of its potential to one day carry more cargo than any other aircraft to disaster zones and forward military bases.

Built around a rigid frame of aluminium and carbon fibre, the huge 230ft prototype, built by U.S. aviation firm Worldwide Aeros, is nevertheless only half the size of its conceived finished version.

Earlier pictures of the bulbous blimp, with its silver skin reflecting green lights shining within the hangar, invited comparisons with Thunderbird 2, the rescue craft from Gerry Anderson’s puppet adventure series Thunderbirds.

The airship has been undergoing testing this month in a 17-storey tall, Second World War-era blimp hangar at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. It must go through several more rounds of flight tests before it could be used in a disaster zone or anywhere else.

But if and when it finally goes into service, the Aeroscraft airship will carry three times as much as the biggest military cargo planes, use a third of the fuel – and it won’t even need a landing strip.

It could revolutionise haulage, and almost everything now laboriously transported across the planet’s surface by boat, train and lorry could within years be carried through the skies, its makers claim.

Aeros said it also must secure more funding for the next round of flight testing, but is hopeful the Defense Department and others will step in again as investors.

It says the cargo airship’s potential to carry more cargo more efficiently than ever before would provide the  military with an advantage on the battlefield and greater capacity to save more lives during natural disasters.

Aeros CEO and Founder Igor Pasternak recently confirmed the vehicle had completed a series of successful ‘first float’ manoeuvres inside its immense engineering hangar.

Mr Pasternak, who is also the chief engineer of the Aeroscraft, explained that the tests had proven its unique lightweight rigid structure conception and vertical take off and landing systems.

‘The first float of the vehicle was a controlled exercise during which all flight systems were operating. The procedure was completed successfully,’ he said.

Aircraft experts are betting that the Aeroscraft vehicle with its advanced technology capabilities will transform the transportation of large and heavy cargoes.

It has the potential to support any number of the world’s equipment-dependent mega-projects and the industries that manage them – including wind energy, aerospace, fossil fuel extraction, highway construction, engineering and telecommunications.

The airship functions like a submarine, releasing air to rise and taking in air to descend, said Aeros mechanical engineer Tim Kenny.

It can take off vertically, like a helicopter, then change its buoyancy to become heavier than air for landing and unloading.

‘It allows the vehicle to set down on the ground. And then when we want to become lighter than air, we release that air and then the vehicle floats and we can allow it to take off,’ Mr Kenny said.

The project has set abuzz the old hangars at the Marine Corps Air Station.

The structures were built to hold blimps during the War. Now workers zip around in cherry-pickers, and the airship’s silvery surface shines against the warm tones of the aging wood of the walls.

‘You could take this vehicle and go to destinations that have been destroyed, where there’s no ports, no runways, stuff like that,’ said Mr Kenny

‘This vehicle could go in there, offload the cargo even if there’s no infrastructure, no landing site for it to land on, this vehicle can unload its whole payload. ‘

The finished version of the Aeroscraft – expected to be ready in three years – will be 450ft long and carry a payload of 66 tons at a speed of 120 knots, up to 18,000ft with a range of 3000 nautical miles.

That could revolutionise air transport, opening up remote areas where there is practically no other means of access.

It could carry relief supplies for victims in disaster areas, heavy oil-extraction equipment to northern Canada’s tar sands, huge turbines to remote wind farms and, of course, heavy military equipment to battlefields worldwide.

The key breakthrough has been the development of an internal system for managing ballast.

Previous airships have been held back by the need to weigh them down or tie them up while cargo is unloaded, lest they are suddenly carried away on the breeze.

But the Aeroscraft’s internal ballast management system gives its operators the ability to control the aircraft’s buoyancy by compressing the helium inside its tanks and replacing it with normal air to bring down to the ground.

Once cargo has been loaded, the airship can rise by re-releasing the compressed helium into its containment tanks, making it again lighter than air, then using turbo-prop engines to control its direction.

Because of this revolutionary system, Aeroscraft needs no airfield to operate, only a cleared area large enough for it to vertically take off and land, and enough labour on hand to unload the cargo.

Mr Pasternak, 48, told Gizmag: ‘The advantage is you don’t need ground infrastructure. You can fly anywhere, you can land anywhere, you don’t need any ballast, you don’t need any ground crew.’

The airship has long been a ‘dream machine’ for visionary inventors.

Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin built the first airship in 1900 as a weapon for Germany. The ‘Graf Zeppelin’ was developed by Dr Hugo Eckener, who flew it around the world in 21 days in 1929.

This powerful symbol of German might was adopted by the Nazis, who funded the creation of the largest airship yet, the Hindenburg.

However, on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames on a trip to the US, having been filled with patriotic German hydrogen instead of American helium.

But Ukrainian-born Mr Pasternak says that his design for a rigid airship is miles apart from the disastrous versions of the early 20th Century.

He told Gizmag: ‘From the structure stand point, all of us are familiar with the Hindenburg and Zeppelin designs.

‘This is different. We built a space frame that sits inside of the vehicle and around the frame we built a rigid cell. The function of the rigid cell is to have it work with the aerodynamic laws. It’s a very simple approach.

‘It also allows us to build vehicles very rapidly. When you’re talking about the production of vehicles, you need the ability to build number of them in a short term and with the frames you can do this.’

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