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Airship scheduled to tour Alaska this summer

Mike Dunham
A Skyship 600 in flight. Photo courtesy Skyship Services, Inc.
A Skyship 600 with mast truck at Floyd Bennett Field in New York. Photo courtesy Skyship Services, Inc.

Eighty-six years have passed since an airship cruised over Alaska. But a Florida company, Skyship Services Inc., has announced plans to fly a 200-foot-long blimp to Anchorage and demonstrate its capabilities around Alaska this summer.

According to an announcement from state Sen. Lesil McGuire, the Skyship 600 craft will be in Anchorage around the July 4 and return to the Lower 48 in September.

Jesse Logan, a member of McGuire's staff working on the project, said the Senate issued the press release at the request of the Department of Transportation. The department had been approached by the company, which was hoping to spread the word and attract sponsorship for the trip.

"Since (airships) are something we're interested in, we put out the release," Logan said. "We've been interested in this for more than a decade, working with NASA, trying to encourage them to come up with alternate forms of air transportation."

The state is not among the sponsors, Logan said. But the BBC is paying for some of the costs. "They're doing a documentary," Logan said. "They'll be filming the entire journey."

Francis Govers, Business Development Manager for Skyship, would not divulge details on how the trip will be financed. But he confirmed that the airship would fly to San Francisco this spring and be in that area "for a bit" before following the Inside Passage to Alaska.

"We plan for three weeks to make the passage," he said. That's because

The airship may need to wait at one location for several days while ground crews and two "mast trucks" leapfrog ahead to the next stop on an Alaska State ferry.

The trucks are equipped with telescoping "expeditionary masts" to which the airship moors when landing.

Govers said the flight plan called for a Seattle departure with stops in Vancouver, Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Is., Ketchikan, Juneau and Yakutat before arriving in Anchorage.

The longest legs in that itinerary will be between Yakutat and Anchorage and between Port Hardy and Ketchikan, about 370 miles for each.

The craft is described as "the largest certified non-rigid airship currently in operation." It has been approved by the FAA for passenger service and transports several thousand passengers each year, mainly on excursion flights. Two are used for flight-seeing tours in the Alps. It can carry 13 passengers plus two pilots at one time. The passenger compartment includes a rest room.

The airship is powered by two five-blade props that can be angled to produce vertical takeoffs and landings, as well as to hold it in a stationary position while aloft.

The only powered lighter-than-air craft to have previously flown in Alaska appears to have been the dirigible Norge, which made the first trans-polar flight between Europe and America (and some say the first confirmed crossing of the North Pole), landing in Teller, 70 miles from Nome, on May 14, 1926. Parts of the Norge are currently on display in the "Arctic Flight" exhibit at the Anchorage Museum.

The flight of the Norge came at a time when airships seemed poised to overtake airplanes as the most important form of air transportation. That era ended when four of the five dirigibles operated by the U.S. Navy crashed due to storms or structural failures and, famously, when the passenger zeppelin Hindenburg came down in flames with newsreel cameras running in 1937.

Blimps -- shaped, powered balloons lifted by non-flammable helium and lacking the rigid steel skeleton of dirigibles -- were used extensively as patrol craft in World War II and chalked up an excellent safety record.

Aside from floating advertisements seen at sporting events, however, successful commercial applications for lighter-than-air craft have proved elusive. Modern airship advocates point to advances in technology, fuel economy and the relatively miniscule carbon footprint in arguing that the vessel has a place in 21st century transportation. (A Skyship produces about 5 percent of the carbon dioxide of a Blackhawk helicopter, for instance.)

Such airships could map and survey remote areas from stable airborne sites, Logan said. They could also move heavy cargo to Alaska's off-road communities.

"Last year when the fuel oil didn't get to Nome before freeze-up, we had to use a Russian tanker and a Coast Guard icebreaker to deliver the fuel," he said. "If we had an airship with a 100 ton capacity it would have served that need."

The Anchorage mooring site had not been determined, Logan said. The airship requires a clear circle 400 feet in diameter to land. Logan said he had contacted the Municipality of Anchorage to see whether the Park Strip might work.

Govers acknowledged that the company was still looking for sponsors. But, he said, they were confident enough to start planning the trip.

The Inside Passage route is preliminary at this time, he said. It still needs to be approved by the pilots.

"The alternative would be to come up the Alaska Highway," he said. But the company was not comfortable with that alternative because of mountain passes and canyons that might be problematic in a dangerous situation.

"Along the coast, if there's any trouble we can just head out to sea and wait it out," Govers said.

More information about the company and the Skyship 600 can be found at skyshipservices.com.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com