Thursday, August 11, 2005

Chapter 15: April 19, 2031 Airship

Major Jon Guzworth watched his latest load depart from the window of his Ft. Carson, Colorado office next to the airship tethers. The jungle green airship extended half a city block and stood four stories high. A spring rain the night before was rising from the field around the airship in a low mist, and the airship’s synthetic fabric skin was damp. Laden with a full load of cargo it looked like a giant watermelon with saddle bags. Its belly proclaimed it the U.S.A. Sargasso, the U.S.A. stood for United States Airship, in ten foot high white block letters. A cabin full of windows, not much bigger than a large Army tent, hanging from the front part of the airship’s belly, held the airship’s crew. Army Captain Wendy Two Feather, the pilot and chief weather officer, Sergeant 1st Class Gordon Snipes, the chief mechanic and reserve pilot, Corporal Simon Beaupres, the assistant mechanic who was also responsible for monitoring weather alerts when Captain Two Feather was off duty, and Private First Class Jesus Gallegos, a cargo handler and airship janitor, ran the ship.

The airship lurched in the direction of the slight breeze from the Southwest when its final tether line was released. The Sargasso’s cargo, several armored vehicles fitted with multiple rocket launchers, and several huge nylon sacks of fuel, spare parts, ammunition and rations, sagged straight down as the airship slowly rose at a rate of a several feet per minute.

It was the moment of truth. About seventy-five percent of airship accidents happened on takeoff, and half of the rest happened upon landing (most of the rest of the accidents were due to bad weather). If the cargo had been mispacked or misweighed by the ground crew, the Sargasso either wouldn’t fly at all, or would upend itself. Or worse, a cargo line could have tangled in a propeller and caused a crash that could have ignited the hydrogen bladders that gave the Sargasso lift, caused a rapid loss in altitude or sent debris into the cabin. Sometimes it couldn’t get altitude quickly enough to clear buildings and trees if it was overloaded and the wind made it hard for the pilot to maintain position. Accidents weren’t common, but it was standard operating procedure to keep an ambulance on hand for all takeoffs.

There could never be a Hindenberg type accident again. Most of the fire in that famous case was caused by a skin treated with a compound closely related to jet fuel; hydrogen fueled fires, in contrast, burn quickly and send flames straight up with a pop. The Sargasso’s hydrogen is encased in dozens of flame resistant, super thin bladders treated with a puncture sealing goo that rest loose in a main compartment full of helium. It was designed so that small arms fire from below, or a minor spark from a mechanical failure could not set off a chain reaction igniting the entire hydrogen supply on board in a massive explosion, while maximizing the airship’s lift by using hydrogen instead of helium. But, a fall from several hundred feet could still do serious injury and flying debris from a damaged propeller system could be just as dangerous as a grenade.

The takeoff this time was perfect. The lines dropped away properly. The Sargasso, laden with its cargo, was well balanced and the cargo lines ran straight. In twenty minutes, at about one hundred feet of altitude (comfortably above trees and most buildings in the vicinity of Fort Carson), the airship’s rotors shifted and the airship began to turn. Ten minutes later, it was on almost a straight course from Fort Carson to the U.S. Virgin Islands, its last stop before Nigeria. There it would fly at its maximum altitude (higher in the low altitude forests of Nigeria than in the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs), and pick a course away from major roads, rivers, and population centers to minimize the risk of sniper attacks. The propellers shifted again and the airship began to pick up speed. It was approaching its cruising speed of seventy knots of airspeed as it vanished over the horizon fifteen minutes later.

Weather permitting, the Sargasso would end its four day trip to central Nigeria in an open field with a tether pole erected by Navy Seabees a year ago, called Port Cowpat, a hundred miles from the nearest fighting. The cargo would take at least a day to unload, and loading up the Sargasso again with its scheduled cargo of several joint strike fighter carcasses that were being returned home for classified salvage operations would take another two days. The Sargasso’s usual round trip was two weeks, with the crew taking a three day leave when they returned stateside. In Nigeria, the crew let the local ground crew unload the Sargasso with only Captain Two Feather supervising, but the entire crew participated in the reloading operations personally.

It wasn’t high speed transportation, but airship lifts were a lot cheaper and carried a lot more cargo than a fixed wing plane airlift. The week it took to pack up, ship the cargo and drop it off, was at least five times faster than the combination of sealift, rail transportation, and travel by convey to a base near the front lines that could have been used instead, probably even longer given the lack of good roads in Nigeria. And, the savings in time and money that came from not having to build airstrips at every supply base was not insignificant. Training airship pilots was cheaper than training fighter pilots, and the airships themselves were cheaper to build than either cargo planes or sealift ships.

An airship lift also kept the cargo away from the Air Force and the Navy, something Major Guzworth appreciated at great deal. Every time Major Guzworth tried to arrange a sealift with the Navy, or an airlift with the Air Force, they treated him like he was a private just out of basic training, instead of an experienced ranking officer. Fortunately, although, the Air Force had initially objected to giving the Army jurisdiction over airships, it backed down when its pilots explained that they didn’t want to fly them because an airship pilot was a glorified truck driver. The Air Force had a need for speed and an airship was not fast. The Navy had also raised concerns, but had never seen sea lift as its most important mission, and also appreciated the fact that airships shifted the discussions over the “sitting ducks” in the military from the Navy’s surface fleet to the Army’s airships.

Wendy, Simon and Jesus watched the scenery now, because Colorado’s mountains were more interesting to watch than the Great Plains and vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean which lie ahead for them. Simon had spent the night before drinking hard on the last day of his leave and made his way to his bunk and slept off his hangover once they were underway. He would be sober long before they landed, and was a competent enough mechanic when his head was clear.

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