With a nod to history and an eye to the future, the U.S. Navy unveiled the MZ-3A, the first airship in use in the Navy in 50 years on Wednesday.
At historic Hangar One at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the nonrigid aircraft that has been used for the last two years in a trial capacity on a number of projects, was displayed with its Navy insignia for the first time.
“For the longest time, every time the airship was in an area there would be all these stories in the news about mysterious blimps,” said Steve Huett, director of the Navy’s Airship Systems Engineering Team. “Hopefully this will answer that question now.”
The 180-foot blimp, which was purchased by the Navy in 2006 and has been in use on a number of research operations and assisted in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup efforts, has been a solid white – until now.
As the Navy marks the Centennial of Flight Commission, the MZ-3A is a welcome addition to the mission of Scientific Development Squadron One, also known as VXS-1, the Warlocks, said Jay Steingold, the squadron commander, who gave the introductory speech.
Steingold and the project's managers — Huett and Bert Race, a former Navy pilot who is now a civilian — shared the ribbon-cutting spotlight with 20-year-old Brent Menard, of Hollywood, Md., the youngest member of the crew assigned to the ship.
"We look forward to proving the LTA (lighter-than-air ship) has a place in our Navy," Steingold said.
While the Hindenburg is easily the most famous blimp of the era, the Navy used nonrigid airships until the 1960s, with the last flight -- a ceremonial one -- taking place on Oct. 31, 1962. At that time, the Navy mothballed the program in favor of the more modern aircraft of the era.
The airships were not forgotten, however, and Race — who flew Seahawks during his time in the Navy — and Huett shared an interest in returning them to the Navy.
"I was in the Nimitz library one day (in 1988) and saw a book on anti-submarine warfare that included the airships," Race said. The book piqued his interested and he has been studying them ever since. Later in his career, he worked in the Pentagon and had an opportunity to write papers that pointed out the possibilities and capabilities the airships offered. When he retired from the Navy, he was able to reach out to Huett — whose interest in airships Race had become aware of during his time as a program officer at the Pentagon — and the two came up with the strategy to return blimps to the Navy's array of aircraft.
It's a return that's wholeheartedly welcomed by the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.
"This ends a 50-year watch for the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society," said Carl Jablonski, president of the society. "We have been fighting for this since the program ended. This is good for the country. It's good for the Navy. It creates jobs. It has a lot of good points."
Jablonski said there are a few veterans still alive who were part of the previous airship program, and seeing its return is exciting for them.
"We're glad some are here to see this," he said.
Huett said lighter-than-air ships offer an affordability for testing equipment and intrumentation that isn't found in other air transportation. They can handle a payload of testing equipment and a day's mission without burning much fuel, he said, aboiut 40 percent more economically than the same payload handled by plane or helicopter.
In addition, some of the equipment being tested requires moving at a slower speed, which the airship can accommodate, Huett said.
"You want to go slowly when you're looking for something," he said.
The MZ-3A has been involved with a number of testing missions for the last two years, Huett said, and also spent a month assisting the Coast Guard with the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizion oil spill, carrying aerial observers who were looking for patches of oil.
The airship, which now has decals reminiscent of those painted on planes early in the 20th century, including the Warlocks' lightning bolt on its top rudder, was a commercial blimp purchased by the Navy. There were a few modifications, Huett said, but for the most part the airship remained unchanged, he said.
Because the Navy hasn't had an airship in so long, it doesn't have pilots fully trained to fly it, so currently contractors with Integrated Systems Solutions Inc. — who are not Navy personnel — handle the flying and maintenance. Steingold's group, which falls under the Naval research lab's flying wing, has custody of the blimp and supervises it.
"Our role is the aircraft reporting custodian," meaning they certify that the contractors have followed procedures to ensure the safety of those involved in flight missions, he said.
Steingold said he has flown the blimp — "Terribly," he said with a laugh — but the contractors have thousands of hours of experience flying blimps, said Huett, who is receiving flight training for the blimp.
The blimp's gondola, 6 feet wide and 25 feet long, can carry a pilot and nine passengers, but Huett said the interior was designed so the seats could be removed in favor of equipment to be tested. The pilot sits in a seat that resembles a wheelchair, and controls the blimps movements with the wheels —called elevator wheels — on either side of the seat and foot pedals.
The balloon portion of the blimp, called the envelope, is actually a balloon within a balloon, Huett said. The inner balloon, called the ballonet, contains the helium that allows the blimp to rise. How much helium and how much air is in the space surrounding the ballonet are just one piece of what determines the flight of the blimp, which can reach a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet but typically flies no more than 1,000 to 3,000 feet.
The envelope holds 170,000 cubic feet of air and the blimp can travel at speeds up to 45 knots, Huett said.
While its home base is Lakehurst, the blimp and its crew travel all around the country conducting missions and assisting the Army and the Air Force — which each have larger blimps — in learning about the capabilities of the airship and how those services can put it to use.
"They're like a traveling carnival," Huett said.
For more information about the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, which will soon be marking the 75th anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster, visit www.nlhs.com.