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Army Floats a Trial Balloon

"It's a fun business," said E. Judson Brandreth Jr., the company's vice president for marketing. "Goodyear did a study and found that universally, blimps give people a big warm fuzzy. People just like blimps."

Brandreth said American Blimp is promoting the use of airships as airborne surveillance. Many people wrongly assume blimps are vulnerable to bullets fired by, say, drug runners or terrorists.

Electronics technician Phillip Mix monitors a video screen as the Army tests special cameras and sensors mounted on a blimp. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

"Almost everything people think they know about blimps is wrong," said Brandreth, citing the misconception that a bullet can bring down a blimp. The envelope is rip-proof. And many people seem to consider blimps moving targets.

"We often discover bullet holes when the airships are brought to our hangar for maintenance," he said. "People shoot at them. Particularly in the country. We think it's kids, not urban warfare. We just patch it up and go."

Pilot Jim Dexter emphasizes how safe a blimp is as he guides the airship above Maryland suburbia.

The blimp takes off and lands at a 30-degree angle, though it feels steeper. The eight seats come equipped with seat belts. Several gondola windows are open, and gentle breezes waft through and lift loose-fitting shirts in billows.

The ride gives the sensation of floating. Dexter works the elevator wheels beside his seat to adjust for the hobby-horsing caused by rising heat currents.

Dexter, who trained to fly fixed-wing aircraft but found airships were his passion, has flown during winds so strong that his blimp was blown backward. Like most blimp aficionados, he gets tired of the 1937 Hindenberg disaster being mentioned. The airship was filled with hydrogen, not helium, and caught fire because the paint contained a compound used in rocket fuel, Brandreth said.

"The Hindenberg always comes up, over and over," he said with a sigh. "If the engines quit, it's a balloon; you vent the helium, go down and land. If there's a rip in the envelope, you let the helium out and recover it later. It's a very safe aircraft."

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