Army's Massive Blimp Takes to the Skies

PHOTO: Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle

The Army's gigantic new blimp took to the air over New Jersey Tuesday evening on a maiden test flight that generated a lot of attention from passersby. Almost as long as a football field, the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, is being tested as a possible reconnaissance gathering vehicle, which has many people calling it a spy blimp.

Standing 80-feet tall and measuring 300 feet in length, the blimp drew many curious glances as it conducted a 90-minute flight above the runway at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

John Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, which is developing the blimp, said the LEMV flew in a "racetrack pattern" over the runway.

The flight pattern was designed to test the craft's maneuverability on turns and variations in altitude. Able to fly as a manned or unmanned aircraft, for its maiden flight a test pilot was at the controls as the LEMV flew at an altitude of more than 1,000 feet.

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"We got up to an altitude we wanted to fly out to, tested the motors and the turning, and we stayed over the runway area at Lakehurst," said Cummings.

Technicians have been checking out the blimp to see how it handled its first flight. "We need to check everything out to make sure everything went well as we believe it did," says Cummings. Those checks will determine when the next flight test will be conducted.

Some of Lakehurst's neighbors can't wait for that next test. Cummings says some called the base after Tuesday's flight to inquire when it will take place. Others shared their video footage of the test on the Internet.

The HEMV's dimensions are much bigger than the Good Year blimps usually seen over sporting events, which are 192 feet long and almost 60 feet high. A chase helicopter that flew with the blimp on its first flight was dwarfed by the large craft.

Why is the blimp so big?

Cummings says the larger the vehicle, the larger the payload. For the LEMV, that doesn't mean it will carry heavy equipment like tanks, but surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. Designed to remain aloft for as many as 21 days the blimp would be a useful reconnaissance tool in combat zones. Hence, the nickname the spy blimp.

In June, 2010 Northrop Grumman was awarded a $517 million contract for up to three of the vehicles.

Cummings said that to put one of the vehicles two years from the awarding of the contract was "a considerable accomplishment" given the size, scale and complexity of the aircraft.

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