Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Loose Blimps, Sinking Zeppelins

Okay, much is talked about the loose NORAD aerostat radar system today, hashtag blimp, and why shouldn't we (officially a Tethered Aerostat Radar System - TARS, but part of the missile detector program Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System - JLENS).

When do we ever get the panicky headline, "BLIMP LOOSE, RUN FOR COVER!" Blimps are somewhat of an eccentricity usually found advertising insurance companies or automobile tires in sports events. While the news media tries to eviscerate the military usage of these blimps, the Pentagon seems to be defending its actions over its successful usage over Iraq. It is also important to mention that these balloons float on tethers along the US border with Mexico (which I assume the loose blimp over Pennsylvania was doing similarly with the Canadian border) in order to observe and provide intercept data to airborne smuggling and illegal operations. This is more efficient than sending these P-3AEW aircraft (granted, these aircraft provide coverage to areas where the aerostats and over-horizon radar installations cannot pick up).
And they are pretty aircraft with a slick livery.
The problem is that this came loose from a wild windstorm brewing in the Northeast coast on the morning of October 28th. And then lots of people either lost their shit over it, or got a laugh out of it. Especially with the crippled airship being escorted by F-16s and ripping out power lines (near Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania) with its tether, leaving thousands without power, like some enraged Mothra out to seek revenge from its captors.
All we need now is a hot-air balloon Godzilla and we have the fight of the century
But this is not a new thing, despite this weird coverage of a military blimp in the skies above the US. The United States armed forces has been testing airship capabilities in observation and even as an aircraft carrier ever since 1923, with the USS Shenandoah being built in New Jersey, and a sistership zeppelin (USS Los Angeles built in Friedrichshafen, Germany) were given to the US as reparations from WWI.
The Shenandoah in pre-bikini era San Diego
Then came the larger USS Akron and USS Macon (785ft/239m, almost as long as the WWII aircraft carrier sea vessels) which experimented in carrying and launching 'parasite' fighters (fighter aircraft that cling onto a larger mothership), the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk.
Note the hook to grasp onto the airship, insert flea & chuckwagon joke
Like the aerostat that came down crashing in Pennsylvania today, these airships suffered catastrophes in similar storms:

In the evening of the April 3, 1933, the USS Akron sailed into a thunderstorm off the coast of New Jersey with many Naval and civilian individuals that were pushing for greater airship usage. The airship was caught in the wind bursts of the storm and rapidly pitched up and down. As the crew valiantly tried to save the ship but the storm slammed it into the sea, killing more than 70 people, including the proponents of airship use (such as Admiral William Moffett, whom the large airship hangar in San Jose, California is named after).
Sleek design, but not storm-flexible
It's sistership, USS Macon, was hit by wind shear off the coast of Point Sur, California. Despite losing control and having the airship slowly ripped apart by the windstorm, the flight crew managed to control the ballast and climb so that is slowly descended back to Earth. The airship gently crash landed in the waters of Monterey Bay, California. The airship was lost to the depths of the sea, but the only casualties were two sailors (one jumped airship while it was still too high and another swam to the sinking wreckage to get his personal belongings).
Obligatory large ship - NYC picture
And even the first big airship suffered a similar fate. In 1925, the USS Shenandoah got caught in a similar windstorm as this one in the skies of the northeast US. Unlike this blimp, made from strong mylar, the Shenandoah was too rigid to fight off the storm and it shattered. It fell out of the sky in three pieces, with mechanics falling to their death with the engines, others falling through the shearing gaps from the disintegrating airship, or dropping like a bomb inside the control cabin as it fell away from the Shenandoah. Most of the survivors were within the airship clinging onto the catwalks and other parts of the ship's interior as it slowly crashed into the ground.

This is the part of the ship were most of the crew survived within
The US also purchased an airship from Great Britain, the R-28 (or US Navy ZR-2). But on its third flight, on the 23 of August, 1921, the airship was undergoing turning trials when it suffered a catastrophic structural failure, causing parts of it to explode as it disintegrated into the waters off the coast of Hull, Yorkshire
Storms didn't kill it, but speed and turns did; like a muscle car
The only rigid airship (meaning it has a fixed interior structure holding it together, like the bones inside of a whale; and unlike the non-rigid airships of today, including today's mishap aerostat) that survived was the USS Los Angeles, despite having a few close calls, including getting hit by strong gusts while moored.
As of now, media outlets are having talking heads talking about how much chaos, destruction, and death this airship could've cause and that we were extremely lucky and asking why did it fly away, etc. In a way, we kind of are lucky since, as of this post, there are no reported injuries or deaths from this. In contrast to the damage from previous airships accidents, it also shows that these things are not death machines out for human blood (similar to how airliners became safer since the days of the Shenandoah).

These 'blimps' provide ground and air surveillance similar to the  Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) system does in having radar aiming downwards to pick up any movement:
The chin that sees things
And we have safer materials for these type of vehicles than the rigid flammable zeppelins of a century ago. This is no different than aircraft crashing into the ground because of extreme weather patterns. We, as the people of the United States, should not halt our curiosity and dauntless endeavor to better and more efficient aeronautical vehicles, even if it is a goofy looking #blimp. So listen to the talking heads, laugh with the trolls and jokers in social media, but also look upward as the marvels of our imagination coming to life, whether as civilian or military applications.

Images from Wikimedia Commons & United States Air Force
USS Los Angeles mishap & ZR-2 pictures originally from the US Naval Historical Center

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