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The Next Weapon in the U.S. War on Terrorism Might Be Surveillance Blimps

September 13, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ALOFT ON THE SANTOS-DUMONT — As it searches for ways to combat terrorism, the U.S. Navy is considering a conveyance from the past: blimps.

A Honolulu-based firm has a $4-million contract to test whether blimps are a good platform for an array of high-tech surveillance equipment to catch terrorists wherever they lurk.

The Navy used blimps for decades -- including to provide protection during World War II for convoys crossing the Atlantic Ocean on routes infested by German U-boats -- but their use was discontinued in 1961 in favor of fixed-wing surveillance planes.

The contract for the dirigible redux project was awarded in 1999, but took on added urgency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And surveillance experts working on the project say initial results are encouraging.

"With this platform, we're providing the total intelligence package: air, surface and under the water," said Greg Plumb, deputy project manager for Science & Technology International, during a test flight this week over Imperial Beach south of San Diego.

Using a rented blimp, the firm has begun three months of tests in the San Diego region after similar tests in Manassas, Va. Named for the Brazilian blimp innovator Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932), the 200-foot-long craft has become a common sight, floating at an altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

"San Diego offers everything we need: the border, water, significant military installations, the Coast Guard, DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] issues," Plumb said. "San Diego is the perfect mission environment."

Plumb said technicians have been warned that taking pictures of private property is a firing offense. One of the tests being done in San Diego is to see whether the blimp's detection gear can find "enemy divers" and "submerged mines." Mine detection is a major concern of the Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Among other technologies being tested is what is called the littoral airborne sensor hyperspectral (LASH) system, which can detect hundreds of shades of color and then compare them with the known color spectrum of specific objects. The system was built by Science & Technology under an overall $50-million contract with the Navy.

In the blimp project, images are evaluated by technicians in the blimp's 30-foot gondola, who then relay their findings over secure computer lines to ground-based forces.

"In our day and age, everybody wants 'persistent' coverage, the eye in the sky, 24 hours a day," Plumb said. "Everybody wants that, and that's what we plan to offer." As Plumb sees it, blimps have the advantage of being cheaper to operate than planes or helicopters and more flexible than remote-controlled drones. With infrared technology, they can operate at night.

Steve Huett, LASH program manager for the Office of Naval Research, said he is impressed with what he has seen of the blimp's potential. But he concedes there are institutional roadblocks to winning acceptance for blimps; the Navy, which once had 140 blimps, considered getting back into blimps in the 1980s, but the idea was killed by in-house opposition.

"In the Navy, airships" -- the preferred term for blimps -- "are a very polarizing factor," Huett said. "People either love or hate them, and people who hate them usually don't know them very well."

Even in the Navy, Huett said, airships suffer from the Hindenburg Syndrome, a fear of blimps resulting from the spectacular explosion and crash in 1937 of the 804-foot German airship that killed 36 of 97 people aboard. The crash, during a landing in New Jersey, ended the brief era of airships as commercial transportation.

"People think Hindenburg and are worried that airships will be easy targets, explode, catch fire and kill people," Huett said. "I tell them they're wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong."

Modern blimps are filled with nonflammable helium, not highly flammable hydrogen like the Hindenburg. And though they are low-flying, they're too high for most groundfire and are nearly invisible to radar, he said.

Hitting the blimp with a projectile, Huett said, is like poking an elephant with a fork, an annoyance but not enough to bring the beast down quickly. Even a punctured blimp will have a "graceful degradation" as it lands, he said. "Airships are the most survivable form of air travel."

Although the impetus for the project was to help gather intelligence for military purposes, Plumb and others also see a potential application in civilian law enforcement.

In February, the airship was used for three weeks off the coast of Florida to track the endangered North Atlantic right whale. A blimp also was dispatched to help hunt the Washington-area serial killer late last year, but suspects were arrested before the craft arrived.

Like all blimps, the Santos-Dumont is both graceful and clunky. It glides smoothly while aloft but is tricky to tether on the ground when the wind picks up. On the trip from Virginia, it averaged 53 mph. Wingless, it ascends or descends by the shifting of ballast.

"It's like a submarine, just in a different medium," said Plumb, a former submariner.

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A video of the LASH blimp is available on The Times' Web site: www.latimes.com/blimp.

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