Bud Evans reunites with a piece of his F-104. (Laura Mowry/Edwards AFB)
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In the next few months, E-Green Technologies, based in Kellyton, Alabama, hopes to launch the world’s largest operational airship. The outer envelope of the 235-foot-long, 65-foot-diameter Bullet 580 is a new type of Kevlar (a prime component of bulletproof vests), which designers hope will make the craft light enough to soar past 20,000 feet and carry up to 2,000 pounds of payload or 19 passengers. The $8 million airship will get its lift from a system of helium-containing bags.

The largest airships ever made, Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II, were just over 800 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Lockheed Martin last year built and inflated a 240-foot-long, 70-foot-diameter prototype called HALE-D, but that craft ran out of funding before it could fly.

In an inflation test in May, a prototype Bullet 580 nearly filled the Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, Alabama, near the factory where the airship will be produced. E-Green touted 580’s uses as surveillance platforms, communications “stratellites,” leisure cruisers, and advertising vehicles (the company is also working on spherical designs—the SA 60 Soccer Ball Airship recently flew—for sporting events).

The Bullet 580 will use propellers (turned by engines running on algae-based biodiesel) vectorable to direct thrust in any direction, so the ship can hover and descend to a pinpoint landing or cruise at 80 mph.

E-Green test pilot Allan Judd likens piloting the ship more to operating a boat in an ocean of air. “It’s really not flight,” he says. “It’s flotation and buoyancy.”

The company hopes the romance of lighter-than-air flight will attract customers to its next planned airship, capable of carrying 75 passengers.

But first, the Bullet 580 will have to prove itself in flight tests at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center or California’s Moffett Field. The first flight will carry an experiment package for NASA and Virginia’s Old Dominion University designed to measure the moisture content of the soil below from a vantage point of up to 20,000 feet.

Michael Belfiore

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