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Bring back the blimp? Some in Alaska say it's time.

Laurel Andrews
A rendition of a hypothetical airship in rural Alaska. Courtesy Cargo Airship for Northern Operations Conference

Imagine a flotilla of blimps among Alaska’s aviation arsenal, capable of delivering fuel to rural Alaska and mining equipment to the farthest-flung areas of the state. As Anchorage prepares to host its third annual airship conference, July 10-12, some in Alaska say it’s just a matter of time. But do airships, a.k.a blimps, really have a viable future in Alaska, or do supporters have their heads in the clouds?

Ron Hochstetler is among the believers. As the technical chairman of the Cargo Airship for Northern Operations, he calls the potential for airship and all their setbacks “the most exciting and frustrating part of aviation.”

Hochstetler has been interested in blimps’ “pent-up potential” since 1984. He holds a grand vision of what blimps could do for the globe. “The airship has the potential for turning the world into an archipelago of islands that can be visited at will, without investing a lot of money into infrastructures,” he said.

Last year’s airship conference produced a lot of optimism but not much in the ways of solid planning for bringing airships to Alaska. But this year, as the annual airship conference approaches, the FAA has signed off on the certification of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s hybrid airship P-791, representing a step forward for bringing back the blimp.

Lockheed Martin is an aerospace, technology and defense firm based in Maryland, which derives the majority of its profits from weapons sales.

Its hybrid airship is different from traditional blimp counterparts in its shape -- while the cross-section of a conventional blimp, such as those seen at sporting events, is an ellipse, the hybrid airship’s cross-section is similar to an airplane wing's, which gives the airship lift in addition to what its helium provides.

The company has been working on the giant hybrid airship since 2006, said spokesperson Melissa Dalton via email.

The airship can be controlled remotely, and can land on sand, rough terrain, and water. It can stay aloft for three weeks at a time, making it useful for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the “war on terrorism,” the company writes. It can also be used for disaster relief and homeland security, the company says.

In Alaska, however, an airship's job would be more pedestrian.

Potential for Alaska

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell sees potential for airship uses in Alaska. The Last Frontier could be a “proving ground” for airships, as blimps could navigate its vast landscape with no need for runways and traditional infrastructure used by airplanes.

“Airships have the potential to deliver goods to rural Alaska at the same cost per mile as barges,” he said, without being restricted to summer months for fuel deliveries. That means communities in rural Alaska, which buy fuel at exorbitant prices, could see lowered costs.

Airships could access remote locales such as the Tongass National Forest, where interest in developing geothermal power has been hindered by lack of road permits, Treadwell said.

Both Hochstetler and Treadwell listed mining companies as major industries that could utilize the technology. The Pebble Partnership has expressed interest in using airships to move cargo, said CEO John Shively, but since airship companies “don’t have anything that’s close” to complete yet, and without price or carrying capacity, it’s hard to say whether an airship would be used in its mining operation, should the proposed Pebble Mine go forward.

Red Dog Mine, located in Northwest Alaska, said that is has not yet considered using blimps in the past, nor is it looking into use of this technology today, wrote spokesperson Chris Stannell.

Lockheed’s design filed with the FAA has the capacity to carry 20 tons of cargo, which matches what the Boeing 737-700 freighters can carry, while Boeing’s 747-8 Freighter can carry 148 tons.

Lockheed Martin has two other prototypes of the same airship design but on a larger scale, capable of transporting 70 tons and 500 tons. Those designs have not been certified by the FAA.

The real advantage offered by airships, however, is in the fuel costs. Since helium keeps the blimp aloft, fuel is only used to propel it forward. One study done on the military uses of airships found that an F-16 fighter cost $8,000 in fuel per hour while an airship cost a mere $500 per hour.

The same advantage exists when airships compare to cargo helicopters. Nick Mastrodicasa, project manager at the Department of Transportation, said that airships carry far more payload and are ten times more cost-effective than helicopters used for cargo transport.

Hochstetler said that existing cargo transportation companies that already have an established customer base would likely be the ones to purchase an airship.

Lockheed Martin would not comment on how much the airship will cost to purchase, but Mastrodicasa said that the airship would probably be leased, not purchased, anyway.

“People know airships can work,” Treadwell said. The crux of the matter is whether companies will “actually produce something that’s economic in the marketplace,” he said. The private sector will have to present a product that is competitive with current cargo delivery prices before companies sign up to purchase an airship.

Still, “I suspect somebody could make a business of it.”

Chicken and egg

The question of getting airships off the ground is in some ways a “chicken and egg” scenario, Mastrodicasa said. Companies hesitate to build an airship without guaranteed clientele, but potential clients hesitate to endorse airships’ potential without seeing the finished product.

That complicates matters, Mastrodicasa said, but in the last year, three major companies, Aeros, Northop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are “breaking through the barrier.”

Still, financial questions remain. While Lockheed Martin has invested in the design, it needs to secure a partner who will help finance its new hybrid airship in order to move forward.

Canada, an Arctic nation that also has many rural locales, has been eyeing the potential of airships for hauling cargo in its far north, and has similarly run into questions of who will fund the projects. 

Then there’s the question of helium, the lighter-than-air gas used to lift to airships, which is also a scarce resource. In the past five years, helium prices have been floating steadily upward.  

Hochstetler said that while the supply industry “knows they’ve got a good deal” in terms of demand, airships are unique in how they use the gas.

Once the airship is filled with helium, it “stays in there for the life of the airship,” which only incurs a small amount of loss – it does not need refueling like a gasoline tank.

Airships are looking for a way to “incentivize” the helium industry, but that conversation will also need wait until after a prototype is developed.

Regulatory hurdles exist, as well.

“It’s one thing to build an experimental airship and show that it works,” Hochstetler said, but the FAA needs to give its stamp of approval on a certified airship before it starts to formulate regulations.

Since there has never been a cargo airship in use before, the FAA will need to craft new laws once one is in operation. Developing an airship prototype could take 5 years, Hochstetler said, and the FAA won’t consider crafting regulations before it is complete.

There’s also the question of gaining affordable insurance for a cargo airship, another first for the aviation industry.

Mastrodicasa said the biggest problem facing the airship industry, however, is “awareness.”

“Everybody knows what the Hindenburg was,” he said. Visions of a blimp going up in flames and antiquated technology need to be overcome in order to get the idea off the ground.

Dalton agreed that “cultural changes” are needed in order to propel blimps forward.

Mastrodicasa sees airships as inevitable to Alaska’s future, however.

“Keep looking up, you’re going to see them,” he said. “They’re definitely coming.”

The 3rd Cargo Airship for Northern Operations will take place in Anchorage from July 10 -12.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com