Next Secret Weapon: The Stealth Blimp : Aerospace: Low cost, unmanned and invisible to radar, it is being developed under an Army contract for guerrilla surveillance.


Most people thinking of stealth aircraft probably think about the B-2 Stealth bomber: invisible to radar, fast, sleek, with an estimated price tag of $500 million or more.

Not Carter Ward. When his thoughts turn to stealth aircraft, Ward thinks about something stubby, with a top speed of 28 m.p.h. and costing only about $195,000. The stealth blimp.

For three years, Ward, a civilian engineer for the Navy in Port Hueneme, has been working on a 69-foot prototype of a stealth blimp--meant to be unmanned, radio-controlled and invisible to radar--that has so far received about $700,000 in funding from the Army.

The armed forces aren’t exactly sure how or if they will use the stealth blimp. But the Army agency that is paying for Ward’s blimp project thinks that it could be an “advantageous tool” to add “to its bag of tricks,” says Charles Browne, an engineer with the Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Center in Virginia, which is evaluating the blimp. Browne says the stealth blimp would be great for finding guerrilla base camps or investigating ships suspected of smuggling drugs.

Expensive mega-projects with familiar and frightening doomsday missions, like the B-2, seem inevitable for the military. But the stealth blimp is an unlikely tale of a comparatively cheap aircraft intended mostly for reconnaissance missions.


The melon-shaped stealth blimp also inspires jokes. Says Ward: “When the idea is that you’re sneaking in, a blimp just sounds funny.”

Ward’s plan is for a blimp that would be controlled by radio, so no pilots would be at peril from enemy bullets. It would be controlled from as far as 100 miles away, and would send back pictures through a fiber-optic strand strung from the blimp to the control station attached to a series of beach-ball-sized balloons.

The current prototype, about a third the size of the Goodyear blimp, is being tested at a private blimp airfield in Elizabeth City, N.C., after earlier checks in Camarillo and at Vandenberg Air Force Base essentially proved that the craft could fly as planned. The tests will help determine whether a final version of the stealth blimp will be built for use by the military. It’s hard to say how much more funding the blimp will get, Browne concedes, because its current budget is so small that it doesn’t appear on most budget plans.

Bill Watson, a model maker who is working on the stealth blimp, long ago learned about the surveillance possibilities. A few years ago, he tested a bicycle-powered mini-blimp near Palm Springs. Watson says he flew around unnoticed by people below: “We’d fly 10 feet over their heads and ring the bicycle bell and they’d start looking around on the ground for us.”

That may not persuade military planners, but, Ward says, with a little explaining the logic of the stealth blimp becomes obvious. He points out that blimps are naturally quiet. And because they are mostly made of a fabric bag, they don’t tend to reflect radar waves much, anyway. The prototype that he has built includes radar-absorbing materials to make it more stealth-like. Plus a blimp can be made inexpensively for perhaps as little as $50,000, Ward says.

Strange though it sounds, Ward also says it would be hard to knock a stealth blimp out of the sky. It’s not that you couldn’t shoot it as it floated along at up to 28 m.p.h. But Ward says bullets would only start a slow leak of helium that wouldn’t down the blimp until it had had plenty of time to return to base.

Ward first thought up the stealth blimp about five years ago. A research mechanical engineer, Ward works for the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory, where his job has been to help the armed forces prepare for military construction projects, such as building an airfield on a newly seized piece of land during a battle.

That kind of building has to be planned precisely, but surveying can be dangerous in war conditions because of enemy troops and land mines. So Ward came up with the idea of a radar-invisible, remote-controlled blimp that could fly over the land, take pictures, scan with a laser and send back important surveying information for planners.

But the Navy thought that the idea was “rather humorous,” Ward says, so the engineer took his idea shopping. He didn’t find someone to pay for development of the blimp until 1987, when he found a customer in the Army’s now-defunct Project Office for Low Intensity Conflict. The office thought that it might use the blimp for what it called “counterinfiltration,” namely, spying on guerrilla wars.

Ward got $150,000 from the Army that year for development. His mandate: Build a cheap stealth blimp. “We just wanted to dance it before radar and see if it would show up,” Ward says.

A low budget was the mother of innovation. Eventually, Ward bought a radio-control device used for model airplanes for about $1,300 and modified it. And with the help of Navy consultant Atilla Taluy, he hired Watson--a Simi Valley model maker who had made props for movies and for a comedian--to help him put together the first stealth blimp.

Early in his career, Watson helped build and fly the Gossamer Condor, one of the first human-powered aircrafts in the world, and the Gossamer Albatross, which set the distance record for a human-powered aircraft when it flew about 22 miles across the English Channel in 1979.

But it wasn’t his work on the Gossamer planes that caught Taluy’s attention--it was Watson’s creation of a bicycle-powered blimp for the comedian Gallagher, known for his use of giant couches and other props, as well as for smashing things on stage with a sledgehammer. In a 1984 videotape, “Over Your Head,” Gallagher pedaled the blimp around while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Watson started work on a stealth blimp for Ward in 1987, and soon after he decided to stop free-lancing and started working for AeroVironment, a Monrovia-based company. Watson brought the blimp-building contract to AeroVironment, which then became the contractor assembling the aircraft.

And while the contractors changed, so did the military agency paying for the stealth blimp research. In 1988, Ward was forced to find a new “sponsor” for his research when the first one was disbanded. That’s when he found some financial support from Browne’s Army agency, the Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Center.

Browne is hoping to find even more sponsors to help pay for the blimp’s development into a version that is ready to spot guerrillas or smugglers.

New sponsors could take the project in different directions: Some might want a blimp that’s fast but not stealthy. One of Ward’s ideas for a final version is a blimp without rudders and stabilizers that wiggles and twists through the air like a fish. But Ward also has to contend with more mundane problems such as finding a better engine for the blimp.

In the meantime, some Army units have “expressed interest” in the blimp, Browne says. “But they haven’t signed up to say, ‘We want that one that’s painted blue.’ ”