Navy’s airship continues to prove its worth as an ISR, test platform
By WILLIAM MATTHEWS, Special Correspondent
Sailing the Skies
Agency and the Navy all are working on experimental airships. And
the Army and Air Force each built
large unmanned airships for intelligence gathering.
The Army’s airship, a 300-foot-
long Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV,
completed its first flight on Aug. 7
— about a year and a half behind
schedule. It is designed to fly at
20,000 feet for three weeks at a
time, using cameras, radar and
other sensors to gather intelligence
on targets below.
The Air Force version, the 350-foot-long Blue Devil 2,
was canceled this summer amid construction delays and
So far, only the Navy has an airship in everyday use.
The MZ-3A serves mainly as a flying testbed for
sophisticated sensors and communications gear, but it
can do more. In 2010, for example, it was called into
service to help monitor the 2010 Deepwater Horizon
oil spill and cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s a fleet of one; no more are planned. Don’t look
for a return to the days when more than 100 Navy
blimps searched for German submarines during World
War II or scanned the skies for Soviet missiles during
the Cold War. The last of those blimps retired in 1962
and there is no plan to bring them back.
MZ-3A, which belongs to the Naval Research Laboratory’s Scientific Development Squadron One (VXS- 1)
based at Patuxent River, Md., has a more modest task —
conducting science and technology research.
Airships, it turns out, are ideal for testing the
advanced sensors, including video and infrared cameras, radar, computers and other components of the
next generation of airborne sensing equipment.
MZ-3A flies virtually vibration free and, if need be,
the engines can be throttled back to idle so that even
Airships are ideal for testing advanced sensors, including video
and infrared cameras, radar, computers and other components of
the next generation of airborne sensing equipment.
■ The Navy’s MZ-3A is the U.S. military’s only operational airship.
■ Virtually vibration free, the engines of the MZ-3A can be throttled back to come to a halt in the sky.
■ A slow-moving or even motionless airship provides time to
check, recheck and fine-tune sensor performance.
Alow, slow approach to landing the MZ-3A air- ship feels quite natural to Bert Race. From the co-pilot’s seat at the front of the 178-foot Navy
blimp’s gondola, the approach feels familiar and safe.
“Helicopter guys are very comfortable” with the
gradual descent, he said.
Some fixed-wing pilots find it freaky. Their initial
reaction is fear of stalling, said Race, who flew SH-60B
submarine-hunting helicopters in the Navy and now
is project manager for the U.S. military’s only operational airship.
It’s fitting that the MZ-3A is a Navy airship. Flying it
“is like driving a big boat,” Race said. “We are a displace-
ment vessel. Surface warriors and submariners seem to
grasp the technology faster than most aviators.”
Buoyed by lighter-than-air helium and ballasted by 25-
pound bags of shot, the MZ-3A (alas, it has no catchy
nickname) moves through the air more like a ship through
the sea than a plane or helicopter that depends on thrust
and the Bernoulli principle to keep from crashing to Earth.
When ship operators, particularly submariners, fly
in the blimp, they get it right away, Race said. It’s the
airborne analogue of a submarine.
Military airships are making a tentative comeback.
The Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects