Local unit to make blimp for U.S. Navy


July 03, 1991|By Ted Shelsby

A little bit of aviation history was made last week when a local unit of the Westinghouse Electric Corp. joined the ranks of Boeing Co., Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas as the nation's newest aircraft maker.

Well, it might be more accurate to group Hanover-based Westinghouse Airships Inc., with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the tire maker perhaps better known for its giant blimp.

At a field near Weeksville, N.C., -- a coastal town only about an hour's drive from where Wilbur and Orville Wright conducted man's first flight 88 years ago -- Westinghouse last week rolled out its Sentinel 1000 airship for its maiden voyage.

It's a giant ship -- at 220 feet, it's a hundred feet longer than the Wright brothers' initial flight path -- but it is just a forerunner of bigger things to come.

Westinghouse first ventured into the airship business four years ago when it was selected by the Navy to produce a prototype of a new military blimp, according to Gordon T. Adams, a vice president with Westinghouse Airships Inc.

The military contract, worth $168.9 million, set the stage for the return of the giant airships to the Pentagon's arsenal after a nearly 30-year absence.

It called for a modern-day blimp that would be used to help protect Navy ships from sea-skimming cruise missiles.

Airships have been used by the military since the days of the Civil War, when the Union army sent up battlefield observers in balloons to trace Confederate troop movements.

The last active airship units --squadrons used to track enemy submarines off the U.S. coastline -- were decommissioned by the Navy in 1962.

Westinghouse was not alone in 1987 when it entered into the airship business. It formed a joint venture with Airship Industries Ltd. of Cardington, England, one of the world's leading builders of airships at the time.

But the British concern suffered a series of financial setbacks that led to bankruptcy and the eventual liquidation earlier this year. Westinghouse acquired the blimp they were working on along with other assets of the defunct company.

As part of this process, the name of the venture also was changed from Westinghouse-Airships Industries Inc. to Westinghouse Airships Inc.

Construction was completed at a leased hangar in Weeksville, and Westinghouse's blimp took to the sky for an early morning flight a week ago today.

Navy officials believe that a radar system carried aboard a blimp can greatly increase a ship's warning time for approaching enemy missiles. The Navy brass also felt that blimps would be more economical than patrol planes, which need much more frequent refueling.

But Westinghouse is looking at a broader market than the military for its airship, which is being managed and engineered from an office just a few miles from the company's giant complex near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

In a recent interview, Mr. Adams and Rudy Durbano, another Westinghouse Airships executive, said the lighter-than-air blimp could be adapted to a variety of other uses, including:

* Security. The Westinghouse executives noted that when President Bush attended an economic summit in Paris in 1989, his movements were monitored constantly by a blimp.

* Drug interdiction. An airship equipped with radar could serve as the "eyes" of law enforcement officers watching for drug-running boats and planes making their way to the United States.

* Pollution control. An airship could be used to trace the flow of oil resulting from a ship or offshore drilling rig accidents.

Mr. Durbano said he has also been contacted by a non-profit organization that was interested in leasing the airship for use in tracking whales.

The 220-foot-long Sentinel 1000 is just a few feet longer than the familiar Goodyear blimp, which was in the Baltimore area recently as part of the Preakness celebration.

Mr. Adams said the military airship, now designated the Sentinel 5000, will be twice as large as the craft that flew last week.

The smaller ship, he said, will also be used to test systems used on the 5000, which is several years away from its maiden flight. "We'll be collecting a lot of data to reduce our risks in building the big one," he said.

One of the things being checked is weight, which is critical to the airship's performance. The fin structure, used in steering the craft, is also being examined.

Sensors will be measuring the skin of the craft to detect any wrinkles or surface flexing. The flight control system is being checked out on the smaller craft as well as engine performance.

While Westinghouse has fared better than its previous British partner, its venture into the airship business has not been a smooth flight.

Two years after awarding the contract for the big blimp, the Navy got caught up in the Pentagon money squeeze and "zeroed" the craft out its budget.

The program was picked up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research and development arm of the Pentagon that is normally involved in promoting the development of new technology.

Mr. Adams said last week that funding has since been passed on the Department of Defense's Air Defense Initiative program, charged with defending the U.S. coastline from enemy aircraft.

Mr. Adams stressed that the Sentinel 5000 is still a Navy program and said that while he feels certain that funding will be stable for the next several years, anything can happen as Congress wrestles to control federal spending and reduce the national deficit.

The big blimp could translate into big business for Westinghouse. The Navy has said in the past that it could purchase of to 50 of the ageless aircraft.

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