But even aerospace giants like Northrop Grumman are seeing the prospects for more airship business. Last month, the company's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle made its first flight. The 302-foot unmanned LEMV could be floating over the battlefield by next year, providing video and data to troops for more than 21 days at a time.
Although the airship's first flight had a pilot on board, Northrop's engineers in El Segundo and Rancho Bernardo, Calif., are working out computer programs to reconfigure the lumbering spy ship as a drone.
"Persistent surveillance: That's the mantra," says Alan Metzger, Northrop's program manager for the $517-million contract. "You can launch one of these for days — even weeks — at a time, and have no gaps in coverage."
Some of the military's airship programs haven't had success. The Air Force moved to cancel work on a $211-million program, dubbed "Blue Devil," after the Vicksburg, Miss.-based contractor Mav6 ran into development problems.
Another Air Force airship, filled with 420,000 cubic feet of helium and air and costing $8.2 million, floated away and exploded last year when a tropical storm blew in during a test flight in Puerto Rico. Army aerostats have also been lost in high winds.
Public perception of airships has been guarded ever since the giant Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937 in front of news cameras while mooring at Lakehurst, N.J. The explosion of the hydrogen-filled German zeppelin killed 36 people, shocked the public and deflated the chances of lighter-than-air ships becoming a popular mode of travel.
These days, airships are filled with nonflammable helium, but the Hindenburg tragedy remains vivid to many even today.
"It's very easy to dismiss airship technology. There is a record of public failure, and it's sometimes difficult to take seriously in the modern era," said Bill Althoff, author of "Sky Ships: A History of the Airship in the United States Navy."
Still, the new materials and technology used in today's airships have greatly increased the vehicles' capabilities, Althoff said. "The virtue of the platform has endured," he said.
There is belief among those in the airship business that the technology can take on more civilian roles. Airships already have provided surveillance over the Mexican border for security and on disaster-control missions such as the 2010 BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast.
At Lockheed's facility in Palmdale, work is underway on a 290-foot airship, called SkyTug, to be sold to the commercial market by Canada's Aviation Capital Enterprises. The first SkyTug will be similar to a "super-sized helicopter" capable of carrying 20 tons of cargo.
Bob Boyd, Lockheed's program manager for hybrid airships, said the company expects to start the Federal Aviation Administration certification process by the end of the year. A number of companies that need to get cargo to remote areas, such as oil and timber firms, are interested, he said.
It takes convincing that the airship is the answer to their problems.
"It's hard for people to wrap their heads around," Boyd said. "There are three ways to move cargo: by ship, by truck or by train. Suddenly there's this fourth option."
Lockheed has plans for a larger version, called SkyFreighter, that would be capable of carrying 70 tons of cargo, and an even larger version, called SkyLiner, that would measure 800 feet and be capable of lifting 500 tons of cargo.
Within three years, Boyd said, his company could be manufacturing as many as 30 airships a year.
"People don't recognize it, but Southern California is the epicenter for hybrid airships," he said. "We'll certainly be filling the sky with something unusual in the coming years."