Inside a decommissioned military hangar in Tustin, California, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, sits what at first glance looks like the world’s biggest Mylar balloon.
Closer inspection reveals a skeleton of carbon tubes clothed in a silver skin -- an unwitting visitor might wonder if he’d wandered onto the set of a sci-fi film. Instead, this shiny monster, dubbed the Aeroscraft, is Igor Pasternak’s shot at proving to the world that helium-filled airships, long ago eclipsed by planes, have a bright future in commercial cargo.
“What we’re doing is revolution,” says Pasternak, who started the predecessor to Worldwide Aeros Corp. in his native Ukraine and then moved the closely held company to Los Angeles in 1993. “We’re establishing a new market.”
Pasternak, the company’s chief executive officer, wants to be the first to harness helium for multi-ton deliveries. He envisions thousands of 500-foot-long zeppelins capable of traversing the U.S. at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, ferrying mining equipment to roadless stretches of Alaska and bringing organic strawberries to gourmet supermarkets in Manhattan, at a quarter the cost of a cargo plane.
Since they’re light and can take off and land vertically, Pasternak’s airships -- the industry’s preferred term -- could be an energy-efficient way to bring big loads to out-of-the-way places without first having to build a runway or a road. The Aeroscraft could have a cargo capacity of as much as 250 tons, about three times that of the U.S. military’s C-17 transport plane.
Its success hinges on a design solution to a problem that’s plagued lighter-than-air craft since their early-1900s heyday.
Traditional blimps, like birthday balloons, are great at rising though not so good at returning to earth. Lacking buoyancy control, they have to be tethered by a crew after landing. The drawback makes large cargo deliveries virtually impossible: Any weight that’s offloaded has to be replaced with an equally heavy load -- say, of sand or lead -- for the craft to keep its equilibrium.
To tackle that problem, Aeros engineers created a “variable buoyancy” system that pumps helium out of the main chamber and into lightweight compression tanks in the hull. The compressed gas makes room for the ship to take on more air, allowing for a slow descent.
While the concept of variable buoyancy has been around for more than a century, “the accepted opinion was that it was not practical due to the weight of the equipment,” says Rob Knotts, a member of the Airship Association in the U.K., a group of zeppelin enthusiasts.
Lightweight materials such as carbon-fiber tubes and the aluminum honeycomb panels used in the Aeroscraft’s frame have changed the calculus, says Tim Kenny, a lead engineer on the project. Also, instead of titanium tanks for pressurized helium, the company is using laminated fabric pouches.
Kenny and his crew proved the system could work using a 266-foot prototype. They plan a test flight later this year.
Financing, rather than engineering, is the bigger challenge. Pasternak realizes it may not be easy to find buyers for a new class of aircraft at the outset. To win converts, he wants to build a fleet of 24 ships, most of them large enough to transport 250 tons, and lease them to companies or governments. His estimate to build the fleet: $3 billion.
Arranging airship financing has so far eluded even the likes of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US), the world’s largest defense contractor, which has its own concept for a cargo transporter that doesn’t involve variable buoyancy.
“It’s been tough to get through to the cargo world that something like this might actually really solve some of their problems,” says Robert Boyd, Lockheed’s airship program manager.
So far, the U.S. Department of Defense has committed $60 million toward development of the Aeroscraft; that money runs out in August, leaving the company to seek private investment.
Copenhagen-based Moeller Maersk A/S (MAERSKB), which operates the world’s biggest cargo container line, is interested in using the technology for overland deliveries, but that doesn’t mean the company is willing to foot the bill for an initial fleet, says William Kenwell, a Maersk senior vice president.
To secure investors, Pasternak will have to overcome what Paul Adams, editor of the Airship Journal and a pilot who’s flown the Budweiser (BUD:US) blimp, calls the “giggle factor.” Says Adams: “People just don’t take them seriously. Everybody sniggers at you when you say you work with airships.”
Bill Crowder, a logistics consultant in McLean, Virginia, is optimistic. He thinks oil and wind power companies could be among Pasternak’s first customers. “As soon as they see that it really does fly, there will be people out there willing to put up the money.”
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