Sunday, November 14, 2010

US Army Orders Lockheed-Martin’s Secrecy Airship

Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects is making possibly the first realistic tests of a hybrid airship–a concept that dates back many decades but that is just now being tried at a significant scale. The Skunk Works had clandestinely built the craft and hoped for a quiet first flight at its Palmdale, Calif., facility, but a few passers-by noticed the odd object in the sky.

The Defense Dept. is showing interest in two categories of airships–those that can carry large cargo at low altitude, exemplified by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Walrus program, and those that can function in high-altitude low-wind conditions and remain on station for long periods of time.

The configuration of the Skunks Works ship points to it is the former–a hybrid heavy-load carrier. The interest is across the services and the speculative applications are miscellaneous, ranging from logistics–delivery of an integrated fighting unit within theater, for example–to sensor, communications and even laser-weapon relay platforms. But airships aren’t there yet.

Major unresolved issues could derail the airship dream, such as their traditional fragile ground handling, and possibly prohibitive economics and vulnerability. These issues have been debated endlessly on paper, and now Lockheed Martin, a prime airship advocate, is investing to seek real answers.

A hybrid airship gains most of its lift by being filled with a lighter-than-air gas such as helium. Overall, it is heavier than air and gains the final 20% or so of lift by flying like an aircraft, but with slow takeoff and landing speeds that allow operations from short not ready strips. The Skunk Works made the first flight of its “P-791″ testbed on Jan. 31 at its facility on the Palmdale Air Force Plant 42 airport.

The manned flight was about a 5-min. circuit around the airport in the morning and appeared to be unbeaten. The company did not publicize or want to discuss the flight. The P-791 is not part of a government contract, but rather an independent research and development project by the Skunk Works to better appreciate airship capabilities and technologies, such as materials, a company official says. However, it may also be a quarter-scale sample of a heavy-lifter.