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At Lakehurst, airships are taking off again

At Lakehurst's historic Hangar 1, made famous by the fiery Hindenburg disaster nearby 75 years ago, another airship is waiting to take off on its next mission.

The MZ-3A airship at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. U.S. Navy
The MZ-3A airship at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. U.S. NavyRead more

At Lakehurst's historic Hangar 1, made famous by the fiery Hindenburg disaster nearby 75 years ago, another airship is waiting to take off on its next mission.

While aloft, the manned 178-foot-long Navy blimp - emblazoned with red, white, and blue rudder stripes - has drawn wide-eyed stares from onlookers across Philadelphia's suburbs and along the Jersey Shore over the last several months.

The MZ-3A's testing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is part of the U.S. military's renewed interest in airships, known for their ability to stay airborne for long periods and land without runways.

"Over the past decade, as drones have gained favor in identifying and sometimes engaging enemy forces, an 'old-new' concept has also reappeared - the observation dirigible," said Guillaume de Syon, an aviation historian, author, and professor at Albright College in Reading.

The military is mulling the role of airships in long-term surveillance, intelligence gathering, communications, and research.

While the Navy airship awaits an assignment at Hangar 1, the Army is testing a much larger lighter-than-air craft at Hangar 6.

About the length of a football field, the Army demonstrator is known as the LEMV (the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle), and can be manned or unmanned.

An unmanned 370-foot-long Air Force airship project called the Blue Devil - considered for use in Afghanistan - was canceled this year because of technical challenges and higher-than-expected costs. The surveillance and reconnaissance craft was ordered dismantled last month at its hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C.

Blimp operations continue, though, at the joint base in New Jersey.

The MZ-3A was commissioned by the Navy in October. Its throwback markings and colors celebrated the centennial of Navy aviation.

The Army airship, meanwhile, has been assembled and inflated but not flown.

Both are small compared with their 1930s predecessors, including the 800-foot-long Hindenburg. The airborne luxury liner, the pride of Adolf Hitler's Germany, was destroyed when its flammable hydrogen gas ignited as it came in for a landing in May 1937. Thirty-six people perished.

Americans used nonflammable helium for blimps during World War II, when airships patrolled the waters in search of enemy submarines.

The sight of the Navy ship "brings back fond memories of the blimps" of that time, said Carl Jablonski, president of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the joint base and preserving its history.

"It's good for the security of the country, good for jobs, and good for the economy," he said.

There has not been a Navy airship in Hangar 1 since 1962, when Cold War-era blimps were decommissioned, officials said. The Navy's lighter-than-air program began there in 1921. "It's been a long time, and we're happy it's here," Jablonski said.

The Navy has owned the MZ-3A since 2006 and used it as an advanced flying laboratory to evaluate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors as well as lighter-than-air technologies.

It was used to monitor the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and onboard observers found its low speed particularly well-suited for the mission.

A pilot and nine passengers can fly in the helium-filled craft, which can stay airborne more than 12 hours and cruise at 45 knots at up to 9,500 feet.

It will be moved to Florida in the fall to avoid the harsh winter weather and return in the spring for annual maintenance, said Marcia Hart, a Navy spokeswoman at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., site of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, which manages the Navy Airship Program.

Not much is known about the Army's LEMV. Reporters have not been allowed to see it at its hangar.

The ship could be used as a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering tool for military activities as well as for border control and counter-drug operations. It can provide continuous coverage for up to 21 days and rise to up to 20,000 feet above sea level.

"Since this is a technology demonstration, there has been very little released or discussed in the news media," said John Cummings, a spokesman for the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Alabama.

Blimps have found some niche service since World War II, usually for reconnaissance and artillery ranging, de Syon said.

But after the decommissionings in the 1960s, they were "good for Sunday game rituals and some nice ads," he said. "But now the old formula is back and improved."

Using airships as cargo carriers and remote-controlled camera, radar, and communications platforms is being studied, de Syon said.

"And so it seems the blimp may resurrect itself, but in a very specific, automated role," he added. "No romance of floating below the clouds for this generation of LTAs [lighter-than-airs]" like the intercontinental dirigibles of the 1930s.

"They may be fresh eyes in the world of surveillance," he said.

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or