Sergey Brin’s New Airship Cleared For Flight Testing


IEEE Spectrum is reporting the FAA has issued a special airworthiness certificate to allow Google founder Sergey Brin’s LTA Research to flight test a 400-foot-long hybrid-electric airship, Pathfinder 1, at Moffett Field near San Francisco. LTA has been building the massive aircraft, the largest since the Hindenburg, since 2015. A second larger airship, which is almost 600 feet long, is also under construction. When he started the company, Brin said the plan was to use the airships for humanitarian aid to remote areas.

The test airship has a welded titanium frame whose light weight allows the use of helium as the lifting gas rather than the much-more-temperamental hydrogen. It will have a gondola that can hold 14 people and it’s designed for single-pilot operations, although it has dual controls. Two 150-kilowatt generators supply power to 24 electric motors scattered over the airframe. After initial tethered tests, the airship will be flown within a restricted area no higher than 1,500 feet above San Francisco Bay. Brin bought Goodyear’s Airdock in Akron, Ohio, as the future manufacturing site for the airships.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I’m not sure this will be a success by whatever standard it will have to meet but it’s cool. I like airships. That goes back to my childhood reading Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.

    As far as the hybrid electric issue goes, this may be the rare application where it could work in aviation.

    I’d love to see it in flight someday.

  2. Considering the high, and rising, cost of helium due to dwindling supplies, I wonder how much it will cost to keep these behemoths flying. When helium was first discovered in some Kansas and Oklahoma oil fields back in the 1930s, the element had few uses and we were able to develop a sizeable stockpile. Today, demand has soared and the wells are drying up, so the stockpile is pretty well gone and not being replenished. You can’t “make” helium like you can hydrogen. Once it escapes into the air it is gone forever. And unfortunately, the country that has good reserves now is Russia.

  3. Massive largely empty airport stuck between over-capacity KPOA Palo Alto and derelict & closing KRHV Reid Hillview with well over 100,000 operation a year.

    KNUQ Moffett is run by Google in a strange arrangement where they get to manage this incredible seldom used airport for their private corporate jets and that blimp; in exchange for remodeling blimp hangar one.

    Good to have privilege.

  4. Helium is irreplaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Yet we fritter it away on party balloons and talking like Donald Duck. I’m not convinced this airship is a better use of it.

      • The “rare” in the name of this group of elements is actually somewhat misleading; the U.S. Geological Survey describes them as “relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust.”

        • I think you may be mixing classifications. “Rare”, as in “rare earth metals” is different than “rare” as in very uncommon. In chemistry, a group of elements is taken to mean a group with similar electron configurations. In the case of helium, it is in the group known as “noble gases”. Those gases, which include neon and argon, are almost completely non-reactive (with few exceptions) and are not found in the Earth’s crust. Helium gas is indeed becoming increasingly rare on our planet.

          • I said “rare earth materials”. It’s not misleading since there are NOT vast deposits of Helium, Dysprosium, Terbium, or Praesodymium materials available on the planet. That said it’s not sustainable to start using these rare items as a basis for all future transportation.

  5. Composites would have been a better choice for the structure. It is good to see electric motors in use, but the weight of a generator might outweigh the gas engine unless noise is a problem.

    • The titanium is recoverable though isn’t it? Since this is likely a folly, that makes better sense.

      • Titanium is very recyclable, so no problem there. A composite structure would probably be heavier and harder to repair if damaged. With modern explosion proof electrical equipment and new plastic sheeting, it could work to use hydrogen for the lift gas rather than helium. The problem with the Hindenburg, was that the materials used for the outer skin and the gas containment bags were canvas sailcloth-based and so fairly porous, so leaked H2 constantly. Ironically, the craft was originally designed to use helium, but the US, who pretty well had a monopoly on the helium market back then, refused to sell helium to the Nazis, so they switched to hydrogen. If you design for hydrogen from the beginning, it can be managed.

  6. Good to see that hangar being put to use anyway, an incredible structure! It makes we fixed wing pilots appreciate the size of our aircraft. I’d love my own personal blimp, but don’t want to build a hangar the size of a mall.

  7. Our government got into the helium production & storage game in the 1920’s when it was thought military and civilian use of airships would become a big thing, and the USA could have a strategic monopoly. Although airships didn’t turn out to be the future after all, the system that was developed did do a smooth job of sourcing most of the world’s helium for most of the next 100 years. Then came the decision to get government out of the business.

    The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 initiated a plan to transfer it all to private enterprise through a series of divestitures starting with selloff of the nation’s existing reserve, but as things have progressed it seems second thoughts are now widespread. There are projections that we have only 100-200 years’ worth of helium left, and while we can obviously do without airships & party balloons there are numerous important helium applications in which there are no substitutes.

    So, one more problem to worry about in your spare time. Isn’t operating our civilization fun?

    • Yes, selling off the reserve was probably not our best move, but good luck in reversing that decision. There is one way of “making” helium – nuclear fusion. Perhaps when we finally manage to construct commercial scale fusion power stations (big if) we will have a ready supply of helium. However, that idea has been about 40 years in the future for the last 60 years, so don’t hold your breath.