LAKEHURST — The biggest aircraft to cruise the skies over Ocean County since the golden age of airship travel more than 70 years ago is a high-tech spy blimp for the Army.
Scores of eyewitnesses on the ground Tuesday around Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst watched as the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, soared above them for more than 90 minutes during a test cruise.
At a cost of $517 million, the airship is intended to be a high altitude observation platform — an “unblinking eye” as program backers have called it — to provide total battlefield surveillance in places such as Afghanistan. The ship also has some heavy-lift cargo capability and can operate with a crew or by remote control, according to Northrop Grumman, its manufacturer.
The test flight conducted Tuesday included a crew aboard, said John H. Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.
At 302 feet in length, the LEMV is the largest military airship built since the 1950s. The dirigible is more than 100 feet longer than the Goodyear Blimp, and the MZ-3A, the Navy research airship, which at a length of 174 feet has been a common sight over Ocean County this summer.
However, the LEMV is still not even half the length of the ill-fated Hindenburg, which was 804 feet in length. The Nazi-era German Zeppelin crashed and disintegrated in flames at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people. However, the LEMV’s lifting gas is helium, not the combustible hydrogen that destroyed the Hindenburg 75 years ago.
The Army’s airship has an airborne capability of up to 21 days aloft at altitudes of up to 22,000 feet, feeding information into the Army’s battlefield command and control networks.
The primary objective of its maiden voyage was to perform a safe launch and recovery, with a secondary objective to test the airship’s flight control system operation, Cummings said.
Additional first flight objectives included airworthiness testing and demonstration, and system level performance verification. All the mission objectives were met during the first flight, Cummings said.