Over the years, Lockheed Martin’s secretive Skunk Works outside Los Angeles has spawned such sleek aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.
Today, one of the facility’s hangars houses a 120-foot-long, 21-foot-tall dirigible that resembles a cloud with three puffs — the prototype of a much larger Hybrid Airship that Lockheed has touted as a way to deliver heavy cargo and personnel to remote locations.
When fully built, the LMH-1 will be a 21 metric ton, 300-foot-long and 80-foot-tall airship intended to carry truck-sized loads to areas that are inaccessible to trucks and other more traditional modes of transportation.
It could potentially be used in the oil and gas or mining industries, as well as for humanitarian relief, said Grant Cool, chief operating officer of Atlanta-based Hybrid Enterprises LLC, the exclusive reseller of the Lockheed Martin Hybrid Airship.
47,000Total pounds that Lockheed Martin’s new airship will be able to carry
Lockheed Martin officials couldn’t confirm whether they had any orders yet, but said there were more than a dozen interested parties.
“We are targeting a market that is not really competing with anything else out there,” Cool said. “We are looking for opportunities that don’t really exist right now.”
The LMH-1, which has yet to be built, could have its first flight by late 2017, and is expected to be in commercial service by the end of 2018. A single airship will cost $40 million.
Lockheed Martin has said the airship will be able to carry up to 47,000 pounds and burn less fuel than conventional aircraft.
The Hybrid Airship is the result of more than 20 years worth of research. In 2006, the company flew the P-791, the one-third sized prototype currently in the Skunk Works hangar, over its facilities in Palmdale and completed all of its in-flight test objectives.
The Hybrid Airship is just the latest entry in a category of vehicles that their makers are betting can disrupt cargo transportation.
For example, in 2014 Montebello-based Worldwide Aeros Corp. christened the Aeros 40D Sky Dragon, a white, helium-filled airship that resembled a smaller version of the Goodyear blimp. The airship was sold to Grupo Toyan, a Mexican company that intended to use it to monitor oil pipelines.
A similar airship was sold to the government of Thailand, which has used it for surveillance.
But analysts said the market for such airships is uncertain.
Air cargo numbers have been low for years, and there is a lot of capacity in the air freight business, said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense research firm.
A commercially successful airship will likely have to depend on transporting exotic cargo to exotic locations, he said.
“In theory, it sounds like a great idea,” Aboulafia said. “It’s when you get to the details that things get problematic. There could be something, some kind of niche – it’s just proved elusive so far.”