Spotting the U.S. Navy blimp as it flies over Ocean County has become a seemingly common occurrence. But, just what is the 180-foot long MZ-3A airship doing up there?
"We're doing pilot training. We're doing a lot of that," said project manager Bert Race as he and a group of local media at the Lakehurst NAVAIR grounds watched the blimp ascend Thursday morning. "We're also collecting metrics on the performance of the airship from a reliability and maintenance standpoint."
Media orientation flights, which took off just feet from the site of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, were offered as a way for the community to better understand what's going on when they see the blimp flying overhead.
Purchased in 2006, the American Blimp Corporation airship is "a flying laboratory used to test sensors and multi-intelligence suites for [the Department of Defense] and other governmental agencies," according to the Navy. "The airship provides a slow moving, vibration free and low operating cost platform required for some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance senors."
"Our belief is it can attain a much higher readiness rate than helicopters and airplanes," said Race, a former helicopter pilot. "So far, the metrics are supporting that."
In its first flight in 2007, the blimp operated for about 140 hours before the program was suspended and it sat in Hangar Six until March 2010 when it went back into service.
Since then, it has flown more than 17,000 hours, Race said.
The airship, which had its public unveiling in October 2011, was a commercial blimp purchased by the Navy with a few modifications. Its two pilots flew for Goodyear.
"We're very glad to have their experience on this team," Race said.
The airship consumes about 10 gallons of fuel each hour in flight, has a range of about 350 nautical miles and can travel at a top speed of about 45 knots, according to Race. The blimp's gondola, 6 feet wide and 25 feet long, can carry a pilot and nine passengers and was designed so the seats could be removed in favor of equipment to be tested.
Other aircraft have stricter limits to how long they can remain in flight and cost more per hour to stay airborne when compared to the blimp.
"We can actually send the project specialist aboard and have them up there all day long," Race said.
If something does not go according to plan, there's no rush to get them back down to the ground.
"It's comfortable enough in the air to continue problem solving while in the air," Race said.
When the blimp, the first in use by the Navy in 50 years, began making flights, Navy personnel would receive calls asking if it belonged to them.
"After some negative attention, I was able to get U.S. Navy written on there," Race said. Its top rudder was adorned with the VXS-1 Warlocks' lightning bolt. "We figured, if it says U.S. Navy, it's unambiguous."
Though stationed in Aberdeen, Md., Lakehurst "will always be one of our hubs of operation," Race said. "We always look forward to coming back to Lakehurst."
The airship will head to Florida during the first week of December so it can continue its operations in a more mild winter climate.
Because the Navy hasn't had an airship in so long, it doesn't have pilots fully trained to fly it, so currently contractors with Integrated Systems Solutions Inc. — who are not Navy personnel — handle the flying and maintenance.
With additional reporting by Karen Wall.