Kenai airport commission hears further details of PRL airship

With a first-generation hybrid airship planned to start work in 2019 for transportation and contracting company PRL Logistics, both the airship’s range of missions and the role of its Kenai base remain up in the air according to PRL founder and CEO Ron Hyde.

He addressed Kenai airport commissioners and council members in a Thursday presentation at PRL’s Cook Inlet Operations Center on the south shore of the Kenai River mouth.

Lockheed Martin is currently assembling the first 15 of its LMH-1 hybrid aircraft — so called because they generate lift with both a lighter-than-air helium envelope and aerodynamic surfaces — at a plant in California, with the earliest expected off the line in 2018 or 2019. Presently the U.S Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation authorities of other countries where the craft will operate are studying ways to inspect and certify them, Hyde said. Lockheed Martin is licensing the airships’ operation to the United Kingdom-based Straightline Aviation, for which Hyde also serves as Director of Logistics and Operational Support. PRL plans to use the airship in Alaska on projects in remote, roadless areas.

With vertical take-off and landing, the airship will be able to carry cargos up to roughly 47,000 pounds without requiring a runway. Moving at a top speed of 65 miles per hour, Hyde said the craft is best thought of as “not a slow plane, but a fast boat.”

Aside from these technical specifics, much about the airship’s operation is still speculative. In the immediate future, Hyde’s work on the project will involve meetings with various groups to discuss where and how the craft could be put to use. Though Hyde didn’t name prospective clients, he said “we’re talking to everybody — all the producers, all the oil companies.”

“We don’t have a commitment from any one of them right now on anything, but what we do have is an openness to discuss it, to share experience and ideas and look at that,” Hyde said.

He mentioned meeting with the Alaska Railroad Corporation to study ways of moving loads from train cars to the airship, as well as possible applications in LNG transport and emergency response.

The hangar Hyde plans to build at PRL’s Kenai center is also in the conceptual stage. In a presentation to the Kenai City Council on April 19, he estimated its cost as $10 million — a number he said on Thursday is the high end of a range that could be as low as $1 million, depending on what the members of the airship team decide to put into the facility.

“It depends who’s piled on to that number,” Hyde said. “If you take Lockheed Martin, maybe they want to have a simulator, or the ability to completely rebuild the entire engine, or maybe they want to do a lot of things locally rather than waiting for parts to come in from LA. So it really depends on what that building contains… We really just want to get it out of the weather and do good inspections on it and that kind of stuff.”

The hangar’s prospective location — a wooded area west of PRL’s existing Cannery Lodge and Cook Inlet Operations Center — is about 2 miles from the Kenai Municipal Airport. Kenai Airport Manager Mary Bondurant said the FAA gives airports control over airspace within a 5-mile radius, making the airship subject to directions from the Kenai Airport’s control tower. Bondurant said airport officials don’t expect it to influence airport traffic.

Hyde said putting the airship near a busy airport like Anchorage’s would be “the worst thing we could do.”

“We knew that putting it at any airport was not a good option, because it flies so slow,” Hyde said. “And the whole purpose of the ship is not to be restricted to a commercial airport.”

Kenai was chosen because of the opportunities it presents for testing the airship’s limits and capabilities, such as its ability to land on water for loading and unloading into boats.

“Kenai has a lot of elements,” Hyde said. “You have mountains, you have extreme tides, you have salt water, you have fresh water. And you have a lot of customers on the other side of the Inlet.”

Hyde said the airship group has also been meeting with officials from the North Slope Borough to consider another possible airship base in Deadhorse. In coming weeks, he said he’ll be meeting with local government officials in Fairbanks, where he said “they’d like to have a ship up there to support Interior Alaska.”

Hyde said he’d advocated for basing the ship in Kenai, and the other members of the airship group have consented.

“The goal is to have it here, but hopefully it will not be here very often,” Hyde said. “It will come in here for annual maintenance or whatever. But we need a place where we can bring in technical people, have a pilot training center, have crew training, have a very thorough maintenance.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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