An official with Lockheed Martin told Alaska lawmakers Tuesday that efforts are on track to bring a modern cargo airship to the state in 2019.
The aircraft builder is working with Alaskans and is close to finishing deals to help make that happen, said Craig Johnston, director of business strategy and development for a California-based Lockheed Martin program, Skunk Works, that is developing a helium-filled airship.
Lawmakers on the House Energy Committee who heard Johnston's presentation said the ships could play a big role in Alaska, economically hauling freight and workers to remote sites.
Advocates say the airships eliminate the need for costly roads and runways, making them perfect for delivering supplies across large swaths of Alaska without highways. The ships will be able to carry large loads and land at isolated clearings such as snowfields, ponds and frozen lakes, they say.
"Man, I'm liking that idea," said Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue.
He said villages in his region could benefit from lower-cost shipments of diesel fuel the airships could provide.
They could also support mineral shipments from remote mines, eliminating multiple transportation steps when products are hauled between roads and ports, he said.
Anchorage-based PRL Logistics, which organized the movement of cargo, people and fuel for ExxonMobil's $4 billion Point Thomson field, is working with Lockheed in the effort, Johnston said.
Plans call for development of a 285-foot-long airship that can carry 22-ton loads, comparable to a C-130 Hercules military cargo plane, officials have said.
Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks and chair of the committee, said he invited Johnston to speak to lawmakers after hearing about the potential benefits of airships in Alaska.
Wool said an airship is expected to be tested in Arctic conditions in Alaska starting in 2018, before the first Lockheed Martin airships are delivered for commercial use.
"I don't know how soon they'll be hauling fuel to Naknek, but it sounds like it'll be in use here in the next year or two," he said.
Ron Hyde, president of PRL Logistics, said Tuesday his company plans to provide logistical support for airship deliveries around the world, including a remote rare earth minerals project in northern Quebec. Canadian-based Quest Rare Minerals plans to use seven Lockheed Martin airships for mineral-ore deliveries and other work, Hyde said.
Hyde said his company is designing a hangar in Kenai to house an airship.
The effort to bring airships to Alaska in 2019 has "forward momentum," said Hyde, who founded PRL Logistics in 2002. "We've seen other ships almost get to market but this is starting to materialize."
Westlake said Alaska's nasty weather systems that pound the state with snow or ice might be a problem for the slow-moving airship.
"Seeing how Canada does this will be good model for us," he said.