Las Vegas Sun

April 14, 2024

Airship of the future

Most people visualize one of two things when they think of blimps: Goodyear, which pioneered flying over sporting events in them, or the Hindenburg, which exploded in a massive fireball over Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937.

Neither is a pretty picture to people who enjoy postcard views of the Grand Canyon.

But two North Las Vegas men visualize flights over the Grand Canyon with what they consider to be the airship of the future.

Michael Walden and Robert Ellingwood are partners in LTAS Corp., a company dedicated to building solar-powered rigid airships for sightseeing, recreation, communications and cargo.

Although Walden, the chief executive officer and technologies director of the venture, doesn't have a ship, he has volumes of drawings, computer renderings and proposals to fly his high-tech craft. Among them is a design for a touring vehicle capable of maneuvering around the Grand Canyon with passengers aboard.

Walden received a spark of new hope recently when he made contact with representatives of Holbrook Travel, a Gainesville, Fla.-based travel bureau specializing in eco-tours, expeditions that tread lightly on the environment in exotic corners of the world.

Walden's Tourer-90 airship model would be perfect for some of Holbrook Travel's needs. Not only would it offer 360-degree viewing through massive windows for 24 passengers seated in lounge chairs, but a slightly different model could be used to swoop down to the treetops of rain forests to offer explorers a unique perspective of a jungle canopy.

Holbrook already offers educational tours to Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands and Kenya, among other places. Treading lightly on the Grand Canyon could be one more adventure in Holbrook's catalog.

But taking an innovative idea and turning it into a flying machine is a problem that has plagued Walden for more than seven years.

Born in 1951, Walden knew at an early age he wanted to fly airships. He was born with an elongated coloboma in his eyes, a rare sight disorder.

"My eye doctor often says, 'I have no idea why you can see at all,'" said Walden, who is legally blind and must move to within inches of his computer monitor to read from the screen.

At an early age, he learned that an airship would be about the only mode of transportation a person with his eyesight would be able to pilot.

"The FAA says you only need five takeoffs and landings in a man-powered balloon to be certified," Walden explained.

So, he dedicated much of his life to learning everything he could about airships.

By the time he was 14, he had designed his first airship, but determined to learn more about the science of flight, he went to college. He said he earned degrees in literature, political science, aeronautical engineering, electronics, solar technology and computer science from Stanford, the University of Nevada, Reno, California, Cal-Fullerton, UNLV and Cal-Santa Cruz.

In the late 1980s, Walden met up with Mexican entrepreneur Mario Sanchez-Roldan, who shared his dream to produce a new mode of transportation. In a hangar near Lake Toluca, Mexico, Walden built three man-rated rigid-hulled ships, the first to be flown since the late 1930s. Sanchez, sole owner of Spacial of Mexico, negotiated the commercial contract and Walden built a ship 40 feet high and 105 feet in diameter -- the approximate size envisioned for the Grand Canyon ship.

Thousands of people saw the ship fly when it was airborne over a stadium full of soccer fans in Mexico City.

One day during a flight test, Walden's craft landed in a field occupied by a group of Aztec farmers. Fearful of the ship, the farmers destroyed it.

"I was in good company," Walden said with a laugh, showing an illustration of a balloon being pitchforked by French farmers in the 1800s. "All the best airships have been destroyed by nervous farmers."

The news in Mexico got worse. Sanchez was killed in a car accident and his death spelled the end of his company's financial backing of Walden's dream.

Walden returned to North Las Vegas and went to work for the Community College of Southern Nevada where he is a computer facilities manager who can be found in the school's vast computer lab. Twice, he has been named CCSN Employee of the Year.

In 1994, Walden met Robert Ellingwood, a business professor at CCSN. The outstanding graduate and winner of a fellowship at Cal State College in 1973, Ellingwood went on to get a master's degree in business administration at the University of Southern California.

With few jobs available in his field, Ellingwood went into real estate in Santa Maria, Calif., and eventually got a similar opportunity in Las Vegas, developing properties all over Southern Nevada.

He got an adjunct professorship at CCSN and his interest in aviation took off when his daughter entered the Air Force Academy. His daughter graduated in 1996 and led the only Air Force team to win a major collegiate glider competition.

Ellingwood saw the potential of Walden's ideas and they struck up the partnership. He helped write an extensive business plan for Walden's airship designs and used his business experience to get a foot in the door of potential investors.

Today, Ellingwood is growing weary of the steady stream of rejections he and Walden get when they make their proposal.

On paper, the pitch seems too good to be true. The LTAS Tourer-90, the proposed Grand Canyon craft, is saucer shaped and doesn't look like any airship flying today. About 75 percent of the top surface is covered with solar panels and the gas inside the craft is helium -- not the explosive hydrogen that led to the Hindenburg disaster.

Walden hopes to build a production prototype to demonstrate technology used in the Mexican models and new capabilities added since the Mexico flights. His 30-XB prototype would be about 32 feet high with a diameter of about 50 feet. It would be designed to fly as high as 10,000 feet at up to 40 mph, capable of payloads of up to 800 pounds. The cockpit would be 7 feet high with a 10-foot diameter. With the solar technology, the craft's range would be limitless.

The ship would be equipped with a patented density control-buoyancy unit and multiaxis-control vectored thrusters. That means it would have precision maneuvering capabilities with a system that shifts the helium for stable altitude control and thrust fans that would control the axis.

The buoyancy controller uses an air displacement system and works the same way as a submarine pressure tank.

The hull is made of a high-grade plastic unheard of in the 1930s. It replaces the dirigible membrane made of ox intestines that was 1,000 times less gas tight than today's plastic garbage bag.

With the buoyancy technology, Walden estimates that takeoffs and landings could be accomplished in winds of up to 80 percent of the ship's cruise speed. The electric motors rotate the propellers at low RPMs, making the ship quieter than a plane.

"A number of state and federal agencies have modified, or are in the process of modifying their regulations to prohibit aircraft flyovers with noise levels above 25 decibels (at 100 feet) or exhaust emissions levels typical of all internal combustion engines currently used in today's airplanes," LTAS's business plan says. "These requirements are effectively banning air tour flights from a number of state and federal parks, including scenic and economically significant sites like the Grand Canyon."

Because of the precision maneuvering capabilities of the ship, Walden was able to mount all-terrain landing gear on the bottom of it. That means one of the biggest expenses of operating an airship would be eliminated -- the ground crew. Walden's craft also wouldn't require a mooring mast to park it.

The price tag for putting a production prototype in the air is keeping the project on the ground for now. Walden estimates it would take at least $1 million to put a two- or three-passenger demonstration craft in the air.

As the business brains behind the LTAS plan, Ellingwood is exasperated that he can't get anyone to seriously consider the project.

"We've shown it (a business plan) to many people and they tell us what a great idea it is and then we never hear from them again," said Ellingwood, who joined Walden in San Francisco last week to present a paper to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on the LTAS airship concept.

Ellingwood is realistic enough to understand the numerous hurdles that would have to be cleared to get a Tourer-90 in the air over the Grand Canyon. But he's also frustrated with what he perceives as a never-ending line of bureaucrats that spend more money perpetuating their jobs than providing capital for businessmen attempting to get a good idea off the ground.

"I've got a large file full of polite form letters thanking us," Ellingwood said. "But they're not going to help us get this built."

IN MONDAY'S SUN: The roadblocks facing airship designer Mike Walden and his business partner, Robert Ellingwood.