Sixteen months behind schedule, Army airship finally lifts off

The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle

The 300-foot hybrid airship successfully completes its first test flight yesterday.

The Army’s football field-size airship soared above New Jersey on its first test flight Tuesday, roughly 16 months behind schedule for the massive airship developed by Northrop Grumman Corp.

John Cummings, a spokesman for the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said in a statement that the initial airship test flight from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., lasted more than 90 minutes. “The primary objective [was] safe launch and recovery with a secondary objective to verify the flight control system operation,” he said.

“Additional first flight objectives included airworthiness testing and demonstration and system-level performance verification. All objectives were met during the first flight,” he added.

The Army awarded Northrop Grumman a $154 million contract for the airship, the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, in June 2010 and said it could be worth as much as $517 million if the service bought two more airships. The LEMV is based on a helium-filled aerodynamic airframe from Northrop Grumman subcontractor Hybrid Air Vehicles of the United Kingdom, which provides greater lift than cigar-shaped blimps.

The airship is supposed to carry a sensor package that Northrup Grumman developed to eyeball battlefields from altitudes up to 20,000 feet. Under the original schedule the LEMV was supposed operate over Afghanistan this year. Cummings’ statement did not say whether it carried the sensor package on the test flight.

The LEMV is supposed to be able to operate for 21 days as an unmanned vehicle over 2,000 square miles and provide up 16 kilowatts of electrical power for the sensor package. The first test flight was manned. “Additional manned flights will resume following a planned and very detailed inspection of the vehicle,” he said.

Though the LEMV is 102 feet longer than the Goodyear blimp, it’s a dwarf compared to airships and blimps the Navy operated from Lakehurst from the 1920s through the 1960s. These include the 680-foot USS Shenandoah , a rigid airship with a metal frame first based at Lakehurst in 1924, and the last of the Navy blimps, the 404-foot ZPG-3, which operated from Lakehurst from 1959 to 1962, when the Navy decommissioned its blimp fleet.