For years, aeronautical dreamers have extolled the promise of hybrid airships—blimp-like aircraft that rely on a combination of buoyant gases and dynamic lift to fly. Such a craft, they say, could achieve the efficiency of a lighter-than-air vehicle and the controllability of a conventional airplane—but repeated attempts to fulfill this vision have so far come to naught.
Earlier this month, however, Northrop Grumman achieved the first flight of what may well prove to be the first operationally successful hybrid airship. The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, is a 300-foot-long triple-hulled blimp scheduled to be deployed to southwestern Asia next year, where it will loiter at 20,000 feet for up to three weeks at a time, providing a round-the-clock surveillance-coverage capability equivalent to that of 25 fixed-wing drones. Northrop Grumman provided PM these exclusive images of the blimp during its initial testing phase in Lakehurst, N.J.
The LEMVtook off for the first time in the late afternoon of August 8 and flew for 90 minutes. Although the craft is designed to operate autonomously under the guidance of its own control system, two Northrop Grumman employees occupied it during the flight test.