On November 8, an enormous new airship called Pathfinder 1 made its first test flights in California. The huge airship was built by LTA Research, a company that’s hoping to make an old method of transportation new again.
The new airship is massive. At 400 feet (121.9 meters) long, it’s far longer than a football field. It’s the largest airship of its kind since the 1930s. But the Pathfinder 1 is built using a lot of new ideas, and new materials.
Airships were especially popular in the early 1900s. They were used for transportation, for spying, and were even used in war. But most of that ended in 1937, after an airship called the Hindenburg caught fire and burned as it was landing.
The Hindenburg tragedy scared people away from airships. By that time, planes were improving quickly. From then on, most air travel focused on airplanes.
Now, a company called LTA (Lighter Than Air) Research is hoping to change that. The money for LTA comes from Sergey Brin, one of the two people who started Google. He hired Alan Weston to run LTA. Both men have always liked airships. And they believe airships can be used to move people and materials quickly and without polluting.
LTA has been working on its airship, Pathfinder 1, for about 10 years. From the outside, Pathfinder 1 looks similar to the airships of the 1930s.
But Pathfinder 1 is completely new. For one thing, the ship gets its lift from helium – a lighter-than-air gas that does not burn. (Hydrogen gas, which does burn, was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster.)
The helium is contained in 13 separate sections made of a tough, light fabric. These sections are protected by a strong skeleton made from 10,000 long tubes of light, stiff material called carbon fiber. The skeleton helps the airship keep its shape. The airship’s outside skin is made from another tough, light material.
The Pathfinder 1 has 12 electric motors, which can be powered by either batteries or generators. The motors make it possible for the airship to take off and land without a runway. The Pathfinder 1 can fly at speeds of up to 75 mph (120 kph).
But it will be flying much more slowly during its early test flights. In fact, at first, the ship will be held just barely above the ground. The US government has given LTA special permission to fly Pathfinder 1 under certain conditions. But there will be many tests before the airship is allowed to fly freely. The first 50 flights are limited to 1,500 feet (457 meters) high.
Pathfinder 1 can carry about 4 tons of people and things. In time, LTA hopes to show that airships can provide a low-pollution way to move cargo over long distances. Mr. Brin is especially interested in using airships to help people out in emergency situations, such as after an earthquake or a hurricane, when roads are closed and there’s no place for planes to land.
Did You Know…?
LTA Research is already working on Pathfinder 3, which will be over two football fields long and able to carry far more.
Note: This article has been edited to correct the length of Pathfinder 1.
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