21st Century Airship Development Preserves History

By Scott Spangler on November 13th, 2023

The most fascinating nugget of news in the announcement of the FAA’s issuance of special airworthiness certificate to Pathfinder 1, LTA’s prototype 21st century rigid airship, is the authorization to fly it in Class D airspace defined by California’s Moffett Federal Field (NUQ) and Palo Alto Airport (PAO), which is next door, so to speak. The nugget was nestled in LTA’s certificate application. The airship’s experimental flight test program would establish its flight envelope through “substantial indoor and outdoor ground testing.”

I emphasized indoor because rigid airships are not small flying machines. Pathfinder is 124.5 meters of carbon-fiber-polymer tubes connected by titanium hubs. You need some pretty good indoor space to fly something 136 feet long. Fortunately, LTA Research, founded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin, has options. And in acquiring them, he has saved significant parts of American lighter than air history and national historic landmarks that continue to make contributions to aviation, and would be nearly impossible to replace or recreate.

Moffett Field is south of San Francisco, established in 1931 as the Navy’s West Coast rigid airship facility. (Lakehurst, New Jersey, served America’s sunrise coast.) It is home to three airship hangars. The Navy built Hangar 1 in 1933 for the USS Macon, ARS-5. In 2011, Google’s founders saved Hangar 1 from demolition by underwriting its restoration. Three years later, Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures signed a 60-year lease with the General Services Administration to manage Hangar 1 and the surrounding airfield.

Across the main runways from Hangar 1 are the smaller Hangars 2 and 3, two of the world’s largest freestanding structures. They are two of the 17 wood blimp hangars the Navy built during World War II for its antisubmarine blimp fleet. Hangars 2 and 3 are two of the seven survivors (there are two more in Tustin, California, two at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and one at Tillamook, Oregon). Pathfinder 1 made its first flight inside Moffett’s Hangar 2 on May 12, 2023.

After Pathfinder 1 finishes if Moffett Field flights, it will move to Akron, Ohio, home of the 1175-by-325-foot Akron Airdock, which LTA bought in 2022. Once the world’s largest structure without internal supports (it covers 364,000-square-feet, roughly 7 football fields), the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation built it in 1929. From it emerged the US Navy dirigibles Akron, ARS-4, in 1931, and the Macon, ARS-5, in 1934.

Pathfinder 1 is but a prototype, to be followed by larger iterations as the test program progresses. And, in time, it will offer aviation aficionados the unique opportunity to witness the past, present, and future of one (lighter than air) aspect of aviation. –Scott Spangler, editor


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