New Use for an Old Technology

Quite a few years ago I read a wonderful book by John McPhee called The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. It chronicled the efforts of a group of visionaries–or cranks, take your pick–to bring back lighter than air flight, i.e., dirigibles. Their case was so persuasive that I have looked in vain for the return of this technology for many years. Now, Brendan Miniter reports in the Wall Street Journal that blimps may be making a comeback as weapons in the war against terror:
“The Office of Naval Research is budgeting $3.7 million to study using blimps to guard ports by equipping them with the latest surveillance equipment and relaying the data they collect to local, state or federal law enforcement agencies. More ambitious plans also call for designing new airships that could, among other things, carry heavy military cargo.
“The Navy’s point man on the project is Steve Huett, a career civil servant who is now immersing himself in a blimp subculture. He says that blimps are worth another look because they are about 75% cheaper to operate than helicopters and can stay aloft much longer without refueling. They can fly during storms (although not during hurricanes and other severe storms). And unlike helicopters, there’s little vibration, which can destroy sensitive equipment.”
It would be wonderful if a resurgence in dirigible technology brought back the days when blimps were used for trans-Atlantic travel–not as fast as airplanes, obviously, but far more comfortable, and faster than ships. I’ve never forgotten the image in McPhee’s book of passengers in the 1930’s leaning out of the windows of a dirigible and waving to shepherds as they flew over Newfoundland en route to Europe.


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