A Blimp In Navy's Future?

November 17, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

FORT MEADE -- That giant blimp you saw flying over sections of Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties yesterday was carrying the hopes of the future for Linthicum-based Westinghouse Airships Inc.

While hovering over Laurel Race Course in the morning, Louis L. Foltzer III, an executive with the airship development arm of the local Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group, said the company has a "50-50 chance" of selling the Navy on a plan to bring the airships back into the Pentagon's arsenal for the first time in more than 30 years. The last active airship units -- squadrons used to track enemy submarines -- were decommissioned by the Navy in 1962.

The odds of a successful entry into the airship-building industry by Westinghouse were much higher in 1987, when it won a $168 million Navy contract. The Navy wanted a version of a 200-year-old aircraft as a modern defense against the latest threat to ships at sea -- the deadly ocean-skimming cruise missile.

The Navy concluded that with new construction and modern electronics, the airship could be resurrected as an early-warning radar platform that could travel with surface ships and warn them against low-flying missiles, like the one that slammed into the USS Stark in 1987, killing 37 sailors, while the ship was patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Although there was enthusiastic support for the blimp in the hot days of the Cold War, the program has encountered some rough flying as defense spending has declined.

After the Navy halted funding of the blimp three years ago, the program was picked up by the Advanced Research Project Agency, aresearch and development arm of the Defense Department.

Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the agency, said she was not optimistic about the future of the Navy blimp. She said the Defense Department has not requested money for the program in recent years, but Congress continues to finance it.

All development work on the airship is to be completed with fiscal year 1993 funding.

Although the Sentinel 1000 blimp flying over central Maryland yesterday is slightly larger than the familiar Goodyear blimps, it is merely a miniature version of the one the company hopes to make for the Navy. Mr. Foltzer said the Navy blimp would be twice as long as the company's 212-foot Sentinel 1000 and six times larger in cubic feet.

If things go as planned, the Navy program could generate up to $6 billion in business and create about 1,000 jobs within three or four years, according to William Adams, chairman of Westinghouse Airship. He said the jobs would be about evenly split between operations in Linthicum involved in the design and production of the radar and other sensors, and Weeksville, N.C., where the airships are built.

Although Westinghouse Airships has yet to turn a profit, Mr. Adams said the division has the support of the parent company, rTC which is looking at all phases of the company in a cost-cutting restructuring. Last month, for instance, there was corporate support for the division's $4 million purchase of the assets of Slingsby Aviation, another airship supplier in Britain.

So far, Mr. Adams said, Westinghouse has invested about $30 million in the airship program.

Mr. Adams said the company will complete the critical design phase of the Navy airship next spring. That could determine whether the program moves ahead or is canceled.

The hope, Mr. Adams said, is that the Navy will put money in the fiscal 1995 budget to move into the production phase and that the initial flight will take place in 1997.

Interest in the radar-carrying military airship, he said, exists also in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle East countries.

Westinghouse Airships isn't putting all its eggs in the Navy program. It is also touting civilian and commercial applications for the Sentinel 1000, including its use to detect planes and speedboats used by drug runners, and fire patrol, commercial transport, law enforcement, traffic control and environmental surveys.

Its biggest market to date, however, has been for smaller blimps, costing between $3 million and $5 million each, that are used for advertising. Mr. Foltzer said the company has sold about 14 of the advertising blimps.

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