Lighter Than Air (LTA) has found a clear path to the skies. The American outfit, which was created by Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2015, was recently given the green light to fly its epic airship in California.
The Pathfinder 1 prototype received a special airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in early September, as reported by IEEE Spectrum. The certificate permits LTA to fly the helium-filled aircraft at an altitude of up to 1,500 feet in the airspace at Moffett Field and the neighbouring Palo Alto Airport.
“Pathfinder 1’s experimental flight test program is to demonstrate and establish the flight envelope for the airship,” LTA wrote in a letter to the FAA. “LTA’s test plan is tailored to include substantial indoor and outdoor ground testing, using a build-up approach to gradually increase the flight envelope.”
Pathfinder measures 407 feet from tip to tail, making it roughly twice the length of an Airbus A380. It will be the longest airship to hit the skies in almost a century, following the 804-foot Hindenburg-class behemoths of the 1930s. LTA is also working on a third iteration, the Pathfinder 3, which will stretch about 600 feet.
In terms of construction, the Pathfinder’s internal structure is made of polymer tubing that has been reinforced with carbon fibre. This rigid yet lightweight framework distinguishes the airship from a blimp and means that it can use non-flammable helium as a lifting gas rather than potentially explosive hydrogen.
As for grunt, the airship is equipped with a hybrid propulsion system that sees two 150 kW diesel generators and 24 batteries powering 12 electric motors. (LTA plans to incorporate hydrogen in some capacity in the future, too.) The craft can reportedly reach speeds of up to 75 mph and complete vertical takeoffs and landings. It could eventually carry up to 14 people and has a cargo capacity of up to 11,000 pounds. To that end, LTA says the airship will be primarily used to bring humanitarian aid (food and supplies) to remote areas that are difficult to access via traditional aircraft and vehicles.
Pathfinder 1’s airworthiness certificate is valid for a full year, though LTA expects the test program to be complete within 180 days. After several flights in California, the airship will head back to the company’s hangar in Akron, Ohio. This massive 364,000-square-foot facility, which fittingly used to be the Goodyear Airdock, will be where LTA builds and stores its fleet. Keep your eyes on the skies, folks.