Having grown up watching the Goodyear blimp soar over the Bay Area, I always wondered how high you could get in one of those dirigibles. I still don't have the answer to that question, but here's a report on what appears to be the highest flying powered cargo airship, to date.
A team led by Southwest Research Institute® successfully demonstrated powered flight of the HiSentinel stratospheric airship at an altitude of 74,000 feet. The development team of Aerostar International, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and SwRI launched the airship on November 8 from Roswell, N.M., for a five-hour technology demonstration flight. The 146-foot-long airship carried a 60-pound equipment pod and propulsion system. Sponsored by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the flight was the culmination of a six-month preparation effort.
"There are a number of stratospheric airship programs being promoted around the world, but this is the first of these programs to successfully fly a real airship in near-space," says William Perry, assistant director of Space Systems in the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division.
HiSentinel is the first airship developed under the Composite Hull High Altitude Powered Platform (CHHAPP) program. CHHAPP is a spiral development program for a family of long-endurance autonomous solar-electric, stratospheric airships. These low-cost systems will be capable of lifting small- to medium-payloads (20 to 200 pounds) to near-space altitudes for durations of longer than 30 days for communications, military and science applications.
Designed for launch from remote sites, these airships will not require large hangars or special facilities. Unlike most stratospheric airship concepts, HiSentinel is launched flaccid with the hull only partially inflated with helium. As the airship rises, the helium expands until it completely inflates the hull to the rigid aerodynamic shape required for operation.
Photo Courtesy Southwest Research Institute®
The airship is shown fully inflated during preflight verification in a hangar in Roswell, N.M. It was later deflated and refolded in preparation for the launch. HiSentinel is the first in a family of long-endurance airships developed under the Composite Hull High Altitude Powered Platform program.