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New high-tech airships are rising in Southern California

Southland aerospace firms are building the next generation of blimps and other airships.

September 01, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Worldwide Aeros is building a blimp-like aircraft in a Word War II-era blimp hanger at the former Marine Air Station in Tustin. The airship will ferry multi-ton cargo loads for the military.
Worldwide Aeros is building a blimp-like aircraft in a Word War II-era blimp… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Not since the waning days of World War II have the mammoth wooden blimp hangars at the former military base in Tustin seen as much airship manufacturing work as they do today.

Inside the 17-story structures that rise above southern Orange County, Worldwide Aeros Corp. is building a blimp-like airship designed for the military to carry tons of cargo to remote areas around the world.

"Nobody has ever tried to do what we're doing here," Chief Executive Igor Pasternak said of the 265-foot skeleton being transformed into the cargo airship. "This will revolutionize airship technology."

PHOTOS: Next-generation airships

Residents of Southern California are no strangers to airships. The Goodyear blimp, based next to the 405 Freeway in Carson, regularly lumbers its way across Southland skies and settles above the Rose Bowl and other locations for televised views from overhead. Goodyear imitators also dot the skies above other venues.

But in recent years, the affordability of airships as well as developments in high-definition cameras, high-powered sensors and other unmanned technologies have turned these oddball aircraft from curiosities of a bygone era to must-have items for today's military. And airships increasingly are being used for civilian purposes.

The federal government is buying blimps, zeppelins and spy balloons, and many of these new-generation hybrid "lighter than air" aircraft are taking shape across California.

"So much is going on with airships in California now," Pasternak said. "It wasn't this way 10 years ago."

Pasternak's Montebello firm makes airships used for surveillance, advertising and transport. Lockheed Martin Corp. designs and builds airships for commercial use at its secretive Skunk Works facility in Palmdale. Northrop Grumman Corp. does design work for airships around the Southland but is building them in Florida.

Although these steerable aircraft are sometimes known casually as blimps, there are differences. A blimp is shaped by the gas inside of it, whereas a zeppelin has a rigid skeleton inside. The helium-filled sky balloons, or aerostats, used over Afghanistan are neither blimps nor zeppelins. But they all fall under the term "airship."

The importance of these next-generation airships became obvious to the Pentagon as increased use of drones highlighted the need for stationary aircraft that could provide constant surveillance, not just overhead flights for a few hours. That's where these unmanned blimps came into play, with their ability to linger over an area for days at a time.

Using balloons, blimps and zeppelins in a war zone is not a new idea. The military used balloons for aerial observation posts during the Civil War, and the Germans used zeppelins to drop bombs on England during World War I. Locally, massive blimps regularly patrolled the Pacific Ocean coastline looking for Japanese submarines and other warships during World War II.

After that, the military began opting for helicopters and sub-hunting aircraft, and the demand for blimps, balloons and other airships began to taper off. But they have played an expanded role in recent years in Mideast conflicts. Currently, there are more than 100 aerostats being used in Afghanistan, up from fewer than 10 in 2004.

Resembling small blimps, these aerostats are tethered to the ground and float thousands of feet above military bases and important roadways. They are big enough that gunfire below won't take them down. Cameras on aerostats are similar to those on drones and can see for many miles at a fraction of the per-flight-hour cost of a drone. They're also used to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It's an affordable solution," said Terry L. Mitchell, intelligence futures director at Army headquarters. "You can provide overwatch of the base or troops as they make their way on the ground."

But these less-sophisticated aerostats don't have nearly the size or the capability of the next-generation airships that are being designed and manufactured in California and across the nation.

Pasternak's Aeroscraft being built in Tustin is a zeppelin with a rigid skeleton made of aluminum and carbon fiber. A new type of hybrid aircraft that combines airplane and airship technologies, the Aeroscraft doesn't need a long runway to take off or land because it has piston engines that allow it to move vertically and a new high-tech buoyancy control system.

Pasternak runs a hand through his mop of salt-and-pepper hair and points to the spiny monstrosity, boasting of its versatility.

"This will land in Africa, Afghanistan," he says, "a Wal-Mart parking lot — wherever."

Pasternak hopes to have a first flight by early next year and to demonstrate cargo-carrying capability shortly thereafter.

The Aeroscraft is being built under a contract of around $35 million from the Pentagon and NASA. That's a tall order for Worldwide Aeros, a company of about 100 employees.

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