Skunk Works P-791 airship revived as civil cargo-lifter

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Less than a year after losing a major US Army order, Lockheed Martin will revive and scale-up the P-791 hybrid airship to carry at least 20t of cargo under a new contract signed by a Canada-based commercial start-up.

Aviation Capital Enterprises of Calgary has ordered the first airship, which is rebranded the SkyTug, for delivery from Lockheed's Skunk Works division in 2012, says founder Kirk Purdy.

"We're actually well along into the design of a 20t lifter," Purdy says. "The system requirements are close to frozen for that."

 
 © Lockheed Martin

While the first SkyTug will be demonstrated next year under an experimental license to potential buyers, Lockheed will deliver a second hybrid airship to Aviation Capital in late-2012 for launching certification tests with the US Federal Aviation Administration, Purdy says.

"Lockheed is taking us through that right now," Purdy says. "This is not a surprise to the FAA. They've been briefed."

Although Aviation Capital has not signed up any firm customers, discussions are ongoing with "strongly interested parties" in the Middle East, Brazil, Mexico and Canada for the SkyTug, Purdy says.

The concept adds to the list of active programmes involving hybrid airship designs.

Lockheed first flew the P-791 demonstrator five years ago, but the company lost a bid for a $517 million long endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) contract, which the army awarded last June to Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles.

The LEMV programme requires Northrop to deploy the first aircraft in December to Afghanistan to provide aerial surveillance over 21-day missions, or carry up to 6,900kg (15,000lb) of cargo as far as 2,400nm (4,440km).

Two months after losing the LEMV contract, Skunk Works officials still predicted a bright future for the P-791. "It's still in our hangar. It's available to use again for other demonstrations," Bob Ruszkowski, a Skunk Works system engineer, said in August. "We're exploring other opportunities for hybrid airships."

The first SkyTugs will be designed to lift 20t payloads, but future designs could be scaled-up to carry from 50 to several hundred tons of cargo, Purdy says.

"We're creating an industry here," he adds.

[Watch video describing Lockheed's technical concept for the P-791 on Flightglobal's The DEW Line blog.]