The U.S. Army's new football-field length airship flew with its nose high at the start of its inaugural flight over the New Jersey pines, requiring the two pilots aboard to adjust the balance of air and helium and shift diesel fuel among the tanks.
Even so, the first flight of the Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle on Aug. 7 was a long overdue breakthrough for Northrop Grumman in a development program whose delays have tested the patience of the Army.
By now, the 302-foot long demonstrator was supposed to have been flying in Afghanistan for nine months. The Army wants to fly LEMV for weeks at a time in its unmanned mode to eavesdrop on insurgents and search for IEDs.
Instead, Northrop has conducted just one of 10 to 15 flights planned at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J complex. LEMV will then be flown to Melbourne, Fla., for more tests, including the first unmanned flights, which will need to be done over a military range.
What took so long to get airborne? "There were some areas that we potentially just underestimated in terms of complexity," said Alan Metzger, Northrop's vice president for the LEMV program, pronounced lem-vee.
Northrop and its team had to weave LEMVs fabric from scratch, join the pieces together to form the hull, test the hull for leaks by inflating it with air, and install LEMV's electronics. As for the nose riding a little high, Metzger isn't worried about that. "I wouldn't characterize it as an issue," he said. "It's just one of those things you deal with on a first flight."
The aircraft flew for 90 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,000 feet. Inspections for signs of stress are underway toward a second flight.
Northrop won the LEMV competition in June 2010 and received a contract for $517 million to build up to three vehicles. The first flight was supposed to take place a year later, which would have provided plenty of time for tests and delivery to Afghanistan within 18 months of the contract award.
That didn't happen, but the Army has stuck with the program.
The complexity of building LEMV was driven by the fact that it is a hybrid airship. Its lift comes from helium, an aerodynamic shape designed by Hybrid Air Vehicles Limited of the U.K., and four identical, diesel driven propellers whose direction of thrust can be adjusted, or vectored.
Northrop wants to prove that a hybrid is the best way to meet the requirement for an aircraft that can carry 2,500 pounds of spy equipment at an altitude of 20,000 feet for 21 days.
"By the time we get to the third vehicle, we believe we'll meet all those requirements. But right now, we're short in a few areas," Metzger said.
Metzger said he does not yet know if the Army will exercise options to start work on the second and third vehicles. Some of the aircraft's equipment will be carried on its underside in an area the Army has dubbed the Murphy Bay, after Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in Afghanistan. Under heavy fire during a 2005 reconnaissance mission, Murphy stepped away from his cover to call in help for his outgunned SEAL team. Murphy and two other members of his team died, along with 16 troops on a helicopter dispatched to rescue them.
LEMV is supposed to help prevent incidents like that by gathering reconnaissance remotely and relaying communications.