Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lighter Than A Feather

Balloons and Airships of old
In history, lighter than air craft were the first successful manned aircraft.  The first manned hot air balloon was launched in late 1700's.  The first manned hydrogen balloon was also launched in late 1700's.  The American Civil War saw the use of balloons for map making and reconnaissance for the military, thus starting the precedence of the Army Air Corps that later became the United States Air Force.  These low-tech ships of the air gave man the first experience in the heavenly expanse that was the domain of birds.  For the first time, man could get a birds' eye view of the ground.  From balloons came the dirigible or airship which had steering and propulsion in the form of propellers.  Man learned how to navigate the air.  These craft preceded heavier than air craft such as airplanes by over 100 years.  Hot air and helium are the most common means of providing buoyancy in the air.  Today both these types of lighter than air craft are in use.  Recreation, commercial, military application, and exploration applications use balloons and airships.  Let's take a look at the different lighter than air craft.

I recently went to the 40th Hot Air Balloon Race in St Louis.  Each balloon had a ground crew and pilot.  Each had a basket and burners.  The shapes and colors of the balloons varied.  The pink bunny balloon lead the charge and in fact was 'hare' of the race, just like in dog racing.  The balloon who dropped a bag of seed closest to the pink bunny balloon where it landed won.  I don't know who won, but I got some good pictures of the prep and race (see slideshow below).  Since these balloons are not powered, they travel with the wind.  A good pilot can direct the balloon with the knowledge of knowing what the winds are doing at different altitudes.  These balloons started at Forest Park and went West.  On my way home from the park, my wife and I got to see the balloons over head on highway 40 (I-64).  It was a spectacular sight.  People on bridges, out of their homes, and from their parked cars watched these behemoths float on by.  Large colorful silent craft seem to attract attention.

Created with flickr slideshow.

MA-3A at New Orleans
Airships have a military history.  In World War I they were used as bombers.  After that war, German engineering in the rigid airships called Zeppelins were distributed among the allied forces.  The United States ended up getting airships by buying and building them.  The US Navy and Army operated these ships of the sky.  Today the US Navy owns one airship called MZ-3A.  Its and ship used for research, but it was used by the Coast Guard to survey the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and to coordinate cleanup efforts.  The US Army contracted Northrup Gruman for an airship they call Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV).  It's a hybrid airship.  That means that it uses aerodynamics to produce lift along with helium.  It's being marketed under Hybrid Air Vehicles.  It touts long endurance, heavy lift of cargo, and landing anywhere without special infrastructure.  It's the most advanced airship today.  The other modern semi-rigid airship is the Zeppelin-NT.  It touts all weather flying, something that was sorely lacking in the airships of the past.  The Zeppelin-NT is a passenger craft and is in the tourist business.  They are trying to market it for cargo, but I have yet to see anything written about successful cargo flights.  Unfortunately, both of these high tech airships suffer from a lack of business, so not many exist.   Most commercial airships today are the simple blimp.  These are large bags filled with pressurized helium with gondolas (cabin for pilot and passengers), propellers, and tail fins.   You see them with large commercial signs on them, and they provide a stable in-flight platform for cameras for a sport stadium.  There is another type of airship that's for recreational use, it's the hot air airship.  Like the hot air balloons these are colorful and take just a couple of people aboard.  They do have propulsion and steering. Unlike airships, they handle their altitude via adding hot air.  I cannot speak of their performance though.  In the area of exploration, one of the oldest missions was that of the Norge airship which crossed the Artic in 1926.

Tandem flying high
Some balloons can fly very high.  So high that space programs such as NASA make use of them for flying telescopes and experiments.  They can reach to heights about 19 miles in the air.  The air is very thin up there, almost like space itself.  JP Aerospace is a private organization that has been sending high flying balloons for a while.  They want to go bigger.  They want to make a high flying station called Dark Sky which would serve as a staging area for two different airships.  One launches from the ground to Dark Sky and the other launches from Dark Sky to orbit.  That's a high flying idea, float to space.  Recently they made an unmanned airship that was the highest flying airship ever.  They called it Tandem.  JP Aerospace is one of the few organizations doing exploration and taking science experiments to the edge of space.  Now, let's mention the balloon taking a man up near space so he can jump out.  I''m talking about Redbull's Stratos.  It can hold 30,000,000 cubic feet in volume, that's really big.  The thing about these high flying balloons is that their payloads usually get to the ground by parachute and not by landing as the recreational hot air balloons do.  So jumping out of a balloon near 100,000 feet seems rather reasonable though frightful.

Well, there you have it.  A brief synopsis of lighter than air craft.  An old idea still living on.  Young person, you are the future.  You need to decide whether lighter than air craft are relevant for the future, or should go the way of the dinosaur.