Blimp experiment falls flat

After stunning people who saw a peculiar object flying high, a trial airship plummets 32,000 feet into the woods


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When the U.S. Army and Lockheed Martin launched an experimental military blimp Wednesday, they intended for it to hover miles above Pennsylvania for several days.

Within three hours, it lay deflated in a Greene County forest.

"We had a problem," Army spokesman John Cummings said.

The 240-foot-long blimp, a prototype of the unmanned high-altitude HALE-D military airship, was launched from the Lockheed Martin Akron Airdock facility in Akron, Ohio, at 5:47 a.m.

Its designers hoped to fly the solar-powered blimp to 60,000 feet, where it supposedly could function indefinitely. If successful, it would have been a step forward for HALE-D, an acronym for High Altitude Long Endurance-Demonstrator, which aims to produce high-altitude airships for military observation.

"[The blimp] gives users capabilities on par with satellites at a fraction of the cost," according to Lockheed Martin's website.

The silver-colored blimp flew for nearly three hours, crossing over eastern Ohio and into Pennsylvania.

During its flight, callers who thought they had seen a spacecraft bombarded the newsroom of WTRF-TV, which serves the Wheeling, W.Va., and Steubenville, Ohio, areas.

"They thought immediately it was a UFO," news director Brenda Danehart said. "We got quite a few calls."

By the time the dirigible reached 32,000 feet, its remote-control team realized something was wrong: The HALE-D was stuck, unable to rise to its intended altitude.

Rather than redirect it to the Akron test facility, operators made the call to drop the blimp unceremoniously to the ground.

"We were fighting winds," Mr. Cummings said. "We couldn't get to where we could bring it back down [normally]."

Controllers emptied the blimp of its helium, compartment by compartment, allowing it to drift by 8:30 a.m. into a wooded area in Gilmore, Greene County.

Volunteer firefighters and state police arrived soon after the crash, blocking access to the massive propeller-driven airship.

"It's inert. It's just there," Mr. Cummings said.

No one was injured. The vehicle was unmanned, the surrounding area was uninhabited and the use of solar panels made flammable fuel unnecessary.

Lockheed Martin crews were sent to recover the wreckage. Its designers hope to be able to determine what went wrong.

"We won't know until we recover everything," Mr. Cummings said.

He expects the recovery, involving federal officials and military personnel, to take at least a day.

The blimp was the only one of its kind, Mr. Cummings and Lockheed Martin said, but its demise didn't represent a total loss.

"While we didn't reach the target altitude, first flights of new technologies like HALE-D also afford us the ability to learn and test with a mind toward future developments," said Dan Schultz, vice president of Ship and Aviation Systems for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems & Sensors.

"We proved a variety of advanced technologies, including launch and control of the airship, communications links, solar array electricity generation, remote piloting communications and control capability. ... This is the beginning of more achievements for high-altitude airships," Mr. Schultz said.


Ryan Brown: rbrown@post-gazette.com .


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