Air ships are no strangers to New Jersey skies. From the ill-fated Hindenberg that crashed and burned in the ‘30s to the advertising blimps that circle the meadowlands during football games, we’ve seen an remarkable assortment of lighter-than-air craft over the past 75 years.
But a spy blimp?
Yes, seen over the Jersey Shore earlier this week, according to USA Today and other sources, the U.S. Army’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) made a 90-minute, maiden test flight from its base at Lakehurst earlier this week.
Developed by Northrop Grumman, the LEMV can float over a target area for up to three weeks at about 20,000 feet altitude looking downward with a wide variety of sensors to monitor friendly and enemy formations and provide communications links for ground forces.
In addition, the craft can be used to ferry very heavy loads – up to 14,000 pounds – for almost 2,500 miles.
The price of the LEMV, just like the price of a new car, varies according to the options from about $150 million to more than $500 million apiece.
The most obvious advantage of the LEMV is its ability to stay on station above a selected location for weeks on end. Helicopters can hover over a target area, but their endurance is limited to a few hours. Some surveillance aircraft can linger nearby for a day or more but they must constantly move with no ability to maintain a fixed position. Low-orbiting satellites provide only less than an hour’s useful view before they pass.
According to Wikipedia, the LEMV is about 300 feet long and normally uses a 1,000 foot runway for takeoff. However, the Grumman website indicates that the craft has vertical (no runway) takeoff ability. An aircrew can maneuver the ship or it can be configured to fly remotely without a pilot and crew.
Although expensive, the LEMV has been brought into test configuration rapidly. The agreement between the Army and Grumman to develop the project was signed June 14, 2010 and the first flight was Aug. 7, 2012. Combat deployment is scheduled for Afghanistan in early 2013.