U.S. COAST GUARD
The U.S. Navy’s MZ-3A airship flies oil surveillance duty over Gulf Shores, Ala.,
July 20, 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup effort. U.S. Coast
Guard aerial observers onboard directed cleanup vessels of opportunity below
to oil slick locations.
helicopters, the slow-moving, virtually silent airship did not spook
already stressed animals below,
One evening, after working offshore all day, the MZ-3A motored
stately along the beach to return to
Gulf Shores’ airport. Gathered on
the sand below, “the public gave us
a standing ovation,” Race recalled.
Last winter, MZ-3A was deployed to Dunnellon, Fla., to test
intelligence, reconnaissance and
surveillance (ISR) sensors that were
being readied for the Army’s LEMV.
Along with a high-tech payload
of cameras and computers, the air-
ship carried a crew of sensor engi-
neers. The gondola windows had
been blacked out to exclude prying
eyes, Race said, and the ride was so
smooth that the engineers “almost
forgot they were in the air.”
There was no turbulence, no air
sickness and the engineers were
able to rewrite computer code for
the sensors literally on the fly.
“We exceeded their expectations,” Race said.
The same tests on a fixed-wing
aircraft or a helicopter would have
required multiple landings, refuelings, takeoffs and a fair amount of
bumping around in tight quarters.
forward motion ceases. Dwell time can be important
when testing sensors, and a slow-moving or even
motionless airship provides time to check, recheck and
fine-tune sensor performance.
But there also is a certain mystique about airships.
Race recounts a particularly satisfying mission in 2010.
MZ-3A was deployed to Gulf Shores, Ala., to
respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout.
The blimp made daily flights out over the Gulf of
Mexico, carrying Coast Guard observers to search for
oil slicks, direct oil skimmers to clean the slicks up and
monitor the effects of the oil on wildlife. Unlike noisy
Despite such successes, by early
2012 the Navy was ready to deflate
MZ-3A. It’s not that the blimp wasn’t
performing well, it simply lacked a
mission. The airship flew to Joint
Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in
At the last moment, the Army stepped in. With the
LEMV behind schedule, the service needed a platform
to continue testing LEMV sensors. So MZ-3A was back
in business. The Army is providing enough money to
keep it flying through March.
The Army also signed up the airship for testing communications gear, and soon MZ-3A was flying daily six-hour missions over Fort Dix, serving as an airborne node
for service experiments in network integration.
Now another potential customer has emerged — the
Navy itself is interested in using MZ-3A to support