Swaying at its moorings above the windswept field of the Naval Air Engineering Center in Lakehurst, N.J., the monstrous silvery object seems a vision from the past. On this very airfield 47 years ago, the giant dirigible Hindenburg exploded, incinerating 36 people and ending the era of commercial lighter-than-air flight. But maverick aviation engineer Frank Piasecki is betting that his latest invention will usher in a new age of giant airships. A pioneer designer of helicopters, Piasecki has wedded his genius for rotary-wing aircraft to old-time airship technology and created a Rube Goldberg critter he calls the Heli-Stat. Although only a test model built to pluck 24-ton loads of logs out of remote lumber sites, the hybrid of four choppers and a blimp is already the world’s largest aircraft.
“Vertical lift was the original quest of all people in aviation,” says Piasecki, 64. “Most birds take off and land vertically. Man’s initial ideal was to do the same.” Nearly 10 stories high and as long as a football field, Piasecki’s bird is five times the size of a Goodyear blimp. Cobbled together from four surplus military choppers and a retired U.S. Navy blimp, the Heli-Stat will probably have cost U.S. taxpayers close to $30 million by the time it has completed its ground tests and has taken its maiden flight later this year. Patented in 1962, Piasecki’s design calls for the balloon to float the weight of the helicopters, allowing the rotors to put all their lift into hefting the load. The flying freighter could be used to move tanks, transmission towers and parts of oil rigs.
The son of a Polish immigrant tailor from Philadelphia, Piasecki designed model aircraft as a boy. At 23, he built and flew the second helicopter to lift off in the U.S. A string of helicopter firsts soon followed, including world records for altitude and air speed.
If the Heli-Stat flies, Piasecki envisions similar airships up to 1,000 feet long, carrying loads up to 200 tons across the oceans of the air. “Argosies of magic sails,” wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the prophetic 1842 Locksley Hall, “Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.”