Military eyes resurrecting airships for cargo transport

The Army and U.S. Transportation Command are interested in developing modern versions of the craft for combat and humanitarian missions.

The Army and the U.S. Transportation Command are looking into using updated versions of the ill-fated German Hindenburg airship and the Navy's USS Macon dirigible to transport cargo in support of combat and humanitarian operations.

Development of a logistics airship -- an aerial vehicle that gets its lift from a gas lighter than air, such as helium -- "is urgently needed to enhance the capabilities of the Department of Defense in transporting personnel, supplies, equipment and other materials to increasingly numerous and dispersed locations around the world to respond to any crisis," the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala., said in a request for industry help that closed on Oct. 29.

Additionally, in a request for information released Nov. 8, TRANSCOM sought help from industry, academic researchers and commercial transportation companies to conduct economic analysis, modeling, simulation and experimentation for development of airships for worldwide Defense supply missions.

These two projects follow the June award of a $517 million contract by the Space and Missile Defense Command to Northrop Grumman Corp. to develop a hybrid airship that can carry 2,500 pounds of aerial surveillance sensors.

Northrop Grumman plans to use hybrid airships -- which get their lift from helium rather than the inflammable hydrogen gas used in the Hindenburg, as well as the kind of aerodynamic design used in heavier-than-air planes -- from Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. of Shorstown, England, which also has designed cargo airships.

Gordon Taylor, marketing director for Hybrid Air Vehicles, said, "the time has finally come" for the cargo airship. Many commercial entities worldwide also are looking at them to deliver goods to remote areas, he said.

Taylor said hybrid airships, among other advantages, use one quarter of the fuel that conventional military aircraft such as C-17s use. This is an important consideration for the Defense Department, which wants to cut fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

John Horack, vice president of research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said in his view, "There may be certain missions that cargo airships can fulfill that cannot be met by fixed wing [aircraft] at all, or at any cost." Such missions could include delivering supplies to remote spots in Africa that lack conventional transportation infrastructure, said Horack, who is working on airship development.

Hybrid airships also have the ability to easily deliver cargo to areas where a natural disaster has wiped out conventional air and sea shipping infrastructure, such as Haiti after the earthquake in January, he said.

Both the Army and TRANSCOM plan to use airships for humanitarian relief as well as combat operations, though the Army provided greater detail in its request for information. The Army said it wants designs for hybrid airships capable of transporting 40,000 pounds of cargo -- including vehicles -- at altitudes of 10,000 feet with a range of at least 1,000 nautical miles.

Army Lt. Gen. P.K. "Ken" Keen, military deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told an airship conference this spring in Patuxent, Md., that airships could have flown over the battered piers in Haiti and within hours delivered medical personnel and supplies, saving thousands of lives.