by DAVID AXE
In the 1920s and ’30s, the U.S. Navy operated large airships for maritime patrol. Poor weather forecasting doomed four of six rigid Navy airships when they crashed in storms. Today, better forecasting and GPS have made airship operations much, much safer — and the military is considering getting back into the lighter-than-air business in a big way.
The Army already operates hundreds of sensor balloons over Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force is studying a high-altitude airship as a replacement for manned surveillance jets. The Navy bought an airship for limited testing with squadron VX-20 in 2006 and 2007 and wants bigger models for transport missions.
One of the contract pilots for the VX-20 tests was Jim Dexter. One of America’s most experienced airship pilots, today the 53-year-old Dexter is flight-ops officer for Airship Ventures, a tour operator based at the Navy’s decommissioned dirigible base at Moffett Field, outside San Francisco. I flew with Dexter last week on a brief sightseeing circuit over the Bay area.
Dexter told me that his 12-passenger, German-made Zeppelin has “good endurance, good range.” With a top speed of just 50 miles per hour, the Zeppelin ain’t fast, but it’s cheap to operate, can remain in service pretty much forever with periodic envelope replacement and with adequate weather forecasting is basically crash-proof. Today Airship Ventures flies just Visual Flight Rules at 1,000 feet altitude, but is cleared for instrument flying at higher altitudes. Dexter said he wasn’t worried about integrating airships with manned aircraft. He said the planes can see you coming.
As airships make their big return, folks like Dexter and operations like Airship Ventures will function as the skills “seed” to ensure we’re not just starting from scratch. Up airships!