and the way it flies, he added. “There’s not a lot of stress
on the platform, so it just stays ready all the time.”
An airship’s nemesis is wind.
“Every aircraft is affected by weather, but blimps
have to be concerned about the wind,” Race said.
Pilots and ground crews are constantly watching the
“Before you go to bed at night, you already have a
good idea what to expect the next day,” he said, and first
thing in the morning, you check the weather again.
That’s not to say the MZ-3A is strictly a fair-weather
“Typically, we fly six hours a day, five days a week,”
Race said. “We don’t fly in thunder storms, but on days
when you wouldn’t ordinarily see airships flying,” the
Navy’s pilots don’t hesitate. That reliability is part of
the package MZ-3A sells to its customers.
“Our pilots are the best-trained airship pilots in the
country,” Race said.
They are not Navy pilots, but contract employees who
work for Maryland-based Integrated Systems Solutions
Inc. In addition to a lot of daytime flying, these pilots
maintain night and instrument proficiency.
The service’s base contract with Integrated Systems
Solutions is approximately $4 million a year for up to
120 flight hours per month. The figures can vary
depending on the number of transiting locations and
extra engineering work to support the test mission,
according to the Navy.
After the early morning weather check, the crew
prepares the blimp for flight. It takes a crew of 12 to 14
to man the ropes and other flight stations that secure
the airship until it is ready to launch. They also prepare
the gondola, which carries the instruments and personnel, and add or remove ballast to balance the helium’s lift against the payload and anticipated weather
conditions — rain and sunlight can both affect the
ship’s lift, Race said.
Then, after “a very short takeoff run,” the MZ-3A is
pulled aloft by its twin five-bladed propellers.
The real lifting is done by the helium, however, and
that’s getting harder to obtain. Since 1960, the United
States has maintained an underground Federal Helium
Reserve in porous rock formations in Texas. But the
reserve proved expensive, and in 1996 Congress
passed the Helium Privatization Act requiring that the
stored helium be sold off by 2015.
The plan was to let private enterprise take over the
helium business, but the price to sell off the reserve’s
helium was set so low that companies had no incentive
to develop new supplies.
Now, a decade and a half later, the supply in the
reserve is dwindling, prices are rising and shortages are
Helium is used to fill party balloons and produce silicon
chips. It cools the magnets in medical magnetic resonance
imaging machines and helps melt metal in arc welding.
“Airships use a miniscule amount of helium compared to what industry uses,” Race said.
Reports of helium shortages have increased steadily
since 2007. But the Navy still can get the gas it needs
through the Defense Logistics Agency, which has priority in obtaining it.
Even as MZ-3A is securing its role in research and
development, other ambitious military airship programs have gone bust.
The Army’s HALE-D, a $150 million “high-altitude,
long-endurance demonstrator” built by Lockheed Martin,
crashed in 2011 during its maiden flight and received no
HiSentinel, a disposable Army airship designed to operate above 60,000 feet, has flown three times since 2005,
but not without problems. One flight was cut short when
the airship sprang a leak, and a second flight was aborted
when the ship’s solar-powered propulsion system failed.
As a result, future funding for HiSentinel also appears unlikely, said John Cummings, spokesman for
the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
“HALE-D and other High-Altitude Platforms have
demonstrated potential,” Cummings said. “However,
current resource levels make it difficult to mature fully
the required technologies.”
The Air Force’s Blue Devil 2 was designed to fly at
20,000 feet as an unmanned ISR platform, but it was
canceled in June after multiple missed deadlines, tech-
nical setbacks and cost overruns.
Three other high-altitude airship programs remain
in early stages of development: the Navy’s Star Light airship, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s
ISIS and the Army’s High-Altitude Shuttle.
The failures have not dimmed the promise of airships.
High-altitude airships, which can operate at 60,000
feet or higher, “are still the crown jewel if someone can
achieve it,” Race said. “You get satellite effects without
the cost of putting a satellite in space.”
But building airships that can operate at more than
11 miles above the ground has proven difficult. The
materials science alone is daunting. Ultraviolet radia-
tion at that altitude can quickly degrade materials that
make up an airship’s helium-filled envelope.
Temperature swings complicate helium handling, and
propulsion must be provided by intricate closed-loop
“There are a lot of technical challenges,” Race said.
So while others struggle with the high-altitude elements, the MZ-3A continues to putter along at under
10,000 feet, testing sensors and proving that there still is
a niche in aviation for lighter-than-air craft. ■