How serious is DOD about airships? (Answer: Extremely)

The US Army wants to send an optionally-manned hybrid airship to Afghanistan (see today’s news article). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is experimenting with a lighter-than-air replacement for JSTARS and AWACS (see April blog post), which I know enjoys high level support from the US Air Force. And, not to be outdone, the US Navy foresees a future where entire battalions are shipped in toto by airship (see recent NAVAIR presentation below).



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13 Responses to How serious is DOD about airships? (Answer: Extremely)

  1. EG 30 December, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Not to be a pessimist, but a couple of things seem to be somewhat contradictory and some lessons seem to have been lost in the mist of time. I am not saying the aircraft doesn’t have any uses and I think the concept has validity. But,

    1. Given the nature of an airship, how can they claim a comfortable travel environment? The nature of the loading would indicate to me that the aircraft would be a little uncomfortable in any type of moderate weather. Anyone who has flown in a light aircraft like a C150 with its light wing loading can testify to this.

    2. The claim of survivability seems to forget about the German operational experience of resupplying the Afika Corps from Italy in 1943 with the JU-52 and ME-323. Current technologies would simply enable a ship to be positioned to intercept the craft enroute. Doenitz could do it with the Wolfpacks. Thinks about how much easier it would be now with satellites.

  2. Stephen Trimble 30 December, 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    Survivability is the real bug-a-boo whenever I talk about airships. Thanks for providing that example. I’ll look it up. Maybe it will me ask some good questions.

  3. EG 30 December, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    PALM SUNDAY Massacre

    On April 18, 1943, fifty one Luftwaffe tri-motor air-transport planes and sixteen escorting fighters, were shot down in a little over ten minutes by a group of seventy US and British fighters.

    The Allied pilots were guided to their flight path by messages received from the German enigma codes (Ultra).

    The slow Junker 52 transports were on their way with supplies to the German Army in North Africa.

    This disaster became known as the “Palm Sunday Massacre.”

    Seven Allied planes were also lost.

  4. jim 31 December, 2009 at 3:55 am #

    I’m a sucker for airships, but if airships are so great how come the private sector shipping industry doesn’t use them? Where’s the Fedex airship? Why isn’t Walmart already operating a fleet of these?

    All the same benefits would seem to apply to private cargo, so the lack of private sector interest makes me skeptical.

  5. darrell campbell 31 December, 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Airships can be made to be more stealthy than B-2. Survivability is far greater than airplanes re: damage or engine failures, ability to take hostile fire/missiles.
    Previous comment about flying in weather is moot: airship moves WITH air currrents, rather than mass being forced through air which is what makes airplane travel “bumpy”. (poor example really, but think of long wheelbase on luxury limo compared to compact car )

  6. EG 31 December, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Hello Darrell,
    Thank you for your observation about the weather. I was not aware of that.
    As far as battle damage etc, that only means I need to pump more rounds into the envelope. I remain skeptical about the use of the airship around hostile fire.

    For other missions I would be more sanguine.

  7. Jake 4 January, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Airships are absolutely vulnerable to bad weather – a significant number have broken up or crashed during storms.

  8. Eeyore3061 5 January, 2010 at 7:04 am #

    Jim, here’s a good answer as to why airships aren’t so big in the commercial sector … yet. ;)
    The tipping point:

    And Air Ventures seems to be tooling along quietly meeting it’s business plan milestones and doing nice steady controled growth.

  9. Chuck Rhoden 5 January, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    EG -

    Interesting comments. I worked on the Goodyear GZ22, the current airship in the Goodyear stable. I remember meeting and talking with the chief airship design engineer who was responsible for airship design at Goodyear during WWII and afterwards, Mr. John Murani. He took pleasure in telling the story of a Navy Blimp (airship) being shot down by a German U-Boat that the blimp had damaged with depth charges dropped from the blimp during its caostal patrol. The U-boat had to surface because of the damage the blimp had inflicted. When the U-Boat saw the blimp they shot it down with a deck gun by puting a few rounds through the envelope (bag as we called it), then motored over and captured the blimp crew. Fortunately the blimp crew the U-boat was just of the coast of Virginia/Maryland (if my memory is accurate) and had radioed the U-boat location to shore batteries and for a destoryer to capture the U-boat (which could not submerge because of damage inflicted by the blimp). The blimp crew was rescued and the U-boat capture by a US Navy surface ship all in less than 24 hours.

    So with that knowledge and a reasonable understanding of helium filled lighter than air craft, Airships within a battle zone and within reach of surface to air weaponry would likely not survive that hostile enviroment with any degree of safety and mission completion. As you know helium expands with an increase in altitude so blimps are not generally good air vehicle in mountainous terrain because the flight crew must dump helium as the airship climbs (the bag volume and shape is maintained through ambient air pumped into the bag through the ballonet duct) so once a blimp climbs to high altitudes it must dump helium and therefore cannot return to that same altitude height without a recharging of helium. Again, not a good characteristic in a mountainous battle zone.

    By the way, the US eastern coast was a US ship buriel ground until the US Navy deployed airships as coastal patrol vehicles with depth charge capability. Once the blimp coastal patrol was deployed and raised havoc with the German U-boat fleet; the US was able to meet its European battle theater re-supply needs.

    They are marvelous aircraft but with limited capability. Thanks.

  10. Distiller 11 January, 2010 at 4:57 am #

    The moment one wants to use helium the whole thing becomes uneconomical. Before the airship has another chance, people have to get over those old Hindenburg movies, and start to use hydrogen again.

    The application that is really intersting is for outsized strategic/theatre level sensors.

    Not so much for tactical sensors, as airships will never match the speed and flexibility of a jet.

    And also not for military heavy lift a la WALRUS HULA – don’t want to loose a warehouse full of supplies to a lucky RPG. Finer granularity has its value in military logistics!

    On the commercial side of things it’s a real pitty the German Cargolifter went bust 10 years ago (thanks to mismanagement).

  11. Loic 24 February, 2010 at 2:39 am #

    Another question more tactics-wise the whole blimp thing brings up. The slideshow described the transformation of how we deploy troops. Right now, hes right we use a bunch of plane flights.

    With the airship we got this thing going 50 knots taking 36 hours Ft. Lewis,WA to Pusan, ROK. Well instead of having fighter escorts or whatever to protect a 16 hour flight, you got to get something on station for 36-48 hour.

    What kind of defenses could keep up and still stay with the balloons? By taking significant measures (ie have a carrier on station or plan the flight thru friendly airspace) won’t it lose its edge of surprise? Sure the blimps can handle damage but they are giant slow targets. I can’t imagine that generals could leave whole battalions so defenseless.
    Are the blimps supposed to just hope that no one finds them on the longer trips and leave it to that?
    Maybe we can build armored blimps to protect the troop blimps. We can put missiles and giant shotguns and yves rossi-style jetpack skymarines to hijack other blimps.

  12. Herb 24 March, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    Most folks seem to be thinking that these will be deployed to fight an enemy with comparable capabilities to ourselves, ie. able to project forces over long distances, to control airspaces, etc. Over the last decade none of the enemies we have fought have this capability. So if we were thinking of deploying an airship to say the Mideast from the US, it would not fly over any airspace controlled by any possible opponent and we should be able to establish air control over potential landing zones.

  13. dirigible 21 September, 2010 at 6:47 am #

    it’s really nice how the DARPA experimenting
    for an air replacement to help support the
    US air force..
    that’s really cool..

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