When a huge airship emerged over the beaches of New Jersey, it could be mistaken for filming of a historical movie about the events of 1930s. However, this was in fact the first flight of the new giant military airship LEMV. The era of giant airships is making a slow comeback.
That day airship Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) created by Hybrid Air Vehicles and Northrop Grumman completed its first 90-minute flight, setting off from an air base in Lakehurst. Ironically, this was the same air base from which, in 1929, German airship LZ 127 “Graf Zeppelin”, commanded by Hugo Eckener, took off for its journey around the world.
This flight was only the beginning of many months of testing program, after which the airship would be sent in the war zone in Afghanistan. The airships are coming back, but this time this comeback has a very real basis and a definitive goal. During the first flight a launch was successfully performed, as well as landing and check of all navigation and control mechanisms.
Airships have a long military history. It all started when during the siege of Paris by the German troops in 1871, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin saw balloons rising over the city from which the French tried to establish communication with the province. He got obsessed with the idea of a powered flight in the air. While implementing it, he had spent all his fortune, but perseverance and hard work overcame all the obstacles. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany called him “the greatest German of the 20th century.”
Giant, cigar-shaped airship with a rigid system, built from the trendy and extremely expensive at the time aluminum, became the base of the German air force on the eve of World War I. They were called “Zeppelin”, and used as weapons to bombard enemy cities from air.
However, even before this happened in reality, “the war in the air” with airships was described in the novel of Wells published in 1908. From his point of view, an airship was most convenient for bombing of cities and ships, and its invulnerability to the enemy was achieved through flying at a high altitude and concealment in the clouds.
In his novel Wells described many interesting technical discoveries and innovative solutions, some of which soon became reality. The results of the German airship attacks on British cities were so similar to those described by him in the novel that the writer has once again earned his fame of a gloomy prophet. Only this time his prophecies were fulfilled very soon. At the same time, the writer was able to clearly see such inherent drawbacks of the device as complexity of operation, dependence on the weather, but, above all, their high fire danger because hydrogen was used as the gas to lift the airships off the ground.
Germans lost their “war of airships” during the First World War. Also, the first flight of the Russian airship “Giant” on February 10, 1915, ended with a crash because of its failure in the air. However, all this time, airships were quite actively used by all warring parties, and after the war they found use as a comfortable vehicle that can perform even transcontinental flights. Here their career ended after a series of disasters that confirmed that Wells, who believed their design was too fragile for these huge and expensive machines, was right.
They seemed to have disappeared altogether, but from time to time in various technical journals articles would emerge proving that if airships were made from new construction materials and would be filled with gel, the faults would be easy to overcome.
A very small specially constructed airship even participated in the filming of the movie “The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin” filmed in the Soviet Union in 1965. In the West blimps have been actively used for advertising purposes and by police in some major cities. At the same time, neither passenger nor transport airships have been used to date. It turns out that helicopters are more profitable in terms of takeoff and landing characteristics and bases, because they do not require a special mooring mast and hangar. Planes far surpass airships in terms of speed and capacity.
What advantages does an airship have? It turns out that it has only one, a very special feature – it can hang in the same place almost without consuming fuel for a long time. The creators of LEMV decided to take advantage of this very feature.
If further testing of the new airship is successful and there are no serious accidents, in 2013 LEMV will be deployed to Afghanistan. Staying at a height of several kilometers, this airship will patrol a vast area and continuously monitor the movement of militants as well as the roads and provide surveillance in all weather conditions, both by day and night.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to take it down because the portable SAM missiles do not fly to such heights, neither do bullets fired from automatic weapons. In addition, the bottom surface of the airship does not get heated. In the future it will also be used to transport military loads of up to seven tons to a distance of 3,800 km at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour.
Airship LEMV is somewhat smaller than the legendary “Zeppelin” and has a length of 91 meters, but, nevertheless, can continuously stay in the air for three weeks, carry optoelectronic sensors, electronic warfare, radar, and repeater equipment. To perform the same tasks LEMV consumes ten times less fuel than an aircraft with a similar purpose. UAVs, of course, also consume little fuel, and hitting them is a difficult task, but every such device requires a trained pilot. For patrolling a large area too many of these vehicles are required, which, based on the criterion of “cost-effectiveness” turns out to be not that effective.
Interestingly, the LEMV is optionally manned, that is, it can carry a crew or can be controlled remotely. In the latter case, the control group of 18 airships needs only ten people in the area of deployment. Each UAV needs its own driver. In addition, the combat load of an airship and a small UAV is simply incomparable. This means that combat effectiveness of the airship is many times greater.
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