Prototype airship nears 1st test flight

The 36,000-pound and 230-foot-long Aeroscraft prototype, Pelican, is displayed after a recent demonstration in this image, published Jan. 4, 2013.


By JEFF COLLINS | The Orange County Register | Published: September 6, 2013

An experimental airship came a step closer to its first flight last weekend when the silvery “Aeroscraft” zeppelin hovered a few feet off the ground outside the Tustin, Calif. blimp hangar where it's being built.

The Aeroscraft, a 266-foot-long blimp-like cargo ship, is expected to hold its first test flight within the next month, officials with developer Aeros Corp. said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airworthiness certificate to the firm.

Last week, Aeros announced the ship's flight crew would include former Air Force Gen. Raymond Johns, veteran test pilot and blimp operator Alfred “Corky” Belanger and company founder Igor Pasternak, the Ukrainian native who conceived the futuristic aircraft's unique buoyancy system.

The Aeroscraft is the prototype of what company officials hope will become a fleet of giant lighter-than-air ships that will ferry cargo and military material around the globe.

Like a blimp, the Aeroscraft gets its lift from helium. But it has a rigid, lightweight frame.

The ship's buoyancy system uses air as ballast to take off and land, the way a submarine uses water to dive and surface. Compressed helium is released into the ship's hull, forcing the heavier air out, to give the ship lift. To dive, the helium is compressed back into containers, drawing heavier air back into the hull.

Conventional propeller engines on the sides and at the rear of the craft provide propulsion and keep the airship steady in crosswinds.

The airship has been under construction for more than two years in one of Tustin's twin World War II-era blimp hangars with about $50 million in support from NASA and the U.S. Defense Department.

If the prototype works, Montebello-based developer Aeros – which also manufactures conventional blimps for private firms – hopes to build 22 full-size airships, one type capable of hauling up to 66 tons of cargo, the other with a 250-ton capacity.

Applications include resupplying offshore oil rigs, bringing supplies to rural areas and responding to disaster areas cut off from civilization by road damage.

Saturday's liftoff was just the second time that Aeros tested its buoyancy system, but it was the first test outside the hangars, said John Kiehle, the company's communications director. Aeros also is testing the airship's computer-controlled engines.

The crew is in final preparations for the first flight, which was initially expected to occur about a year ago.