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Massive new US spy airship 'could be used to carry big cargoes'

Mighty Brit-designed vessel could swap height for grunt

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Then there's the matter of ballast

Things aren't quite this simple with the LEMV, which gets extra lift from swivelling propulsion for takeoff and from air flowing over its surface while underway – it is a "hybrid" airship, not a true lighter-than-air vehicle.

Nonetheless, if its owners were happy to accept a lower ceiling than 20,000 feet, it would be possible to put more helium into the ship and so to carry more cargo. All in all, with fuel and sensors removed and extra gas added, the LEMV might be able to carry quite an impressive amount of stuff.

Needless to say, in Afghanistan it might not be that advisable to fly low – an LEMV would be a big target, and an enemy on the ground there is usually at quite high altitude himself. But an LEMV in unmanned mode would at least not be putting any aircrew at risk: and perhaps the added-gas option could be forgone for smaller cargoes.

One major snag would be that of offloading at any location unable to supply water or other suitable ballast to replace the cargo. A lighter-than-air ship unloading has to take on ballast weighing the same as the cargo lost, or vent off expensive helium: if she doesn't, she'll become uncontrollably buoyant, surge up through pressure height and lose gas anyway through automatic safety valves.

Things aren't quite as bad for the LEMV, which would set down in a heavy condition supported by engine thrust as well as gas. But offloading a big cargo would still probably call for taking on a lot of ballast, which might be hard to arrange at many Afghan bases.

All in all, the US Army probably won't be using its new airships for cargo operations – not in Afghanistan, anyway. But it's still an intriguing option, and the news that potentially-useful cargo ships will soon be flying is sure to delight airship fans. Reportedly, various branches of the US military have made enquiries about the LEMV's cargo-carrying potential.

Av Week, quoting Metzger, says that first manned flight is set for July next year. Unmanned long-endurance trials will follow, and the first ship is to deploy to Afghanistan at the end of next year. If the Army are pleased with it, more may be built. ®

*Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle

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