P-791 hybrid airship project
January 31, 2006 marked the maiden flight of the P-791 experimental hybrid airship. Developed by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs aka Skunk Works, the P-791 hybrid airship was flight tested at Lockheed Martin’s flight test facility on the Palmdale Air Force Plant 42.
The United States Department of Defense is interested in the development of an airship capable of transporting heavy loads, 500-1000 tons of cargo, up to 12,000 nautical miles. Such designs have been announced by DARPA ( Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency ). The Walrus HULA ( Hybrid Ultra Large Aircraft ) is an example of such an aircraft. A small scale version of the Walrus is scheduled to fly this year with a 40,000 pounds payload.
Skunk Works managed to test fly the P-791 two years earlier. Although just a testbed for future development, P-791 successors can be used in the future for a number of applications such as delivery of fighting units in a theater of operations or as a weapons/sensor/communications platform capable of operating for long periods of time. The test flight was just a short traffic circuit around the Palmdale Air Force Plant 42 airport and Lockheed did not want to comment the flight.
Airships have great potential for transporting cargo but their use has declined after a series of accidents, one of the most famous of which was the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. Another reason for their decline is the delicate ground handling and relatively high vulnerability to meteorological conditions.The P-791 is an independent research and development program initiated by Skunk Works to better understand the capabilities and to try to solve the numerous problems faced by operating large airships.