Airships to lift off again? Firm engineers comeback

The Aeroscraft airship, a high-tech prototype airship, is seen in a World War II-era hangar in Tustin, Calif., Jan. 24, 2013.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

(CBS News) There was a time when it was common for airships and blimps to fill the skies of America and Europe. That all changed with one simple word: Hindenburg. Now, more than 75 years later, airships could be taking off again.

It looks like a big balloon, but engineer Tim Kenny with Worldwide Aeros Corp., of Tustin, Calif., calls his airship the evolution of air transport. It's the Aeroscraft: a 270-feet-long, 100-feet-tall prototype of the actual airship that will be twice as big and designed to lift tons of cargo.

It's remarkable, not just for what it can carry, but where. Kenny explained, "There is no place that this vehicle can't go, we can go anywhere there's no ports, no runways, it could be the rainforest, it could be the Arctic, we can land on snow, ice, water."

And all at speeds putting traditional truck or ship cargo carriers to shame: 100 miles per hour, from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than a day. Airships seem so practical, some wonder why they ever went away in the first place.

Airships first graced the skies back in the 1920s and 1930s as surveillance platforms, cargo carriers, and even passenger luxury liners. That all came to a tragic end in May 1937 when the Hindenburg crashed, killing 26 people. It's believed a spark ignited the volatile hydrogen gas that kept the Hindenburg afloat.

The future of airships was thought to be over.

Igor Pasternak, the Ukranian-born chief executive officer of Worldwide Aeros Corp., said, "The picture of Hindenburg, it will be there in people's minds."

But Pasternak wants to erase that image. His creation is lifted by non-flammable, lighter-than-air helium. It's not just bigger than earlier airships, but far safer, he says.

And he's not alone. Dozens of companies are working on next-generation airships. Lockheed Martin designed an airship to haul heavy equipment to remote parts of the globe. But the aerospace company couldn't find funding to mass produce it.

Graham Warwick, an aviation analyst with Aviation Week, an information and services provider to the global aviation, aerospace and defense industries, said, "We're very close, probably closer than we've ever been since airships started being operated to building something that the commercial world can use."

Warwick says the only funder with the deep pockets and technical know-how to get new airships off the ground is the U.S. military. Last August, the Army and aviation giant Northrop Grumman Corporation took to the skies with this $517 million aircraft, designed as a surveillance platform loaded with cameras. But with the Afghan war winding down, it now sits in a hangar with its further funding in doubt.

Warwick said, "One of the concerns is, is that the military is going to lose interest before the commercial world can pick it up."

The Aeroscraft got off the ground with just $35 million from the military, but engineer Kenny is convinced it will stay afloat because of its unique technology. He said, "If I wanna put the payload on, I just push a button and it automatically will adjust the vehicle to either be lighter if we add the payload, or become heavier if we remove the payload."

That means no need for ground crews or long mooring ropes. It stays stable in high winds. The Aeroscraft is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval to take a test flight outside the hangar. Then, this California crew is betting the sky's the limit.

Kenny took CBS News for a short ride inside the Aeroscraft's hangar. Watch CBS News' Bill Whitaker's adventure in the full report in the video above.