More than 60 years ago, Dad was stationed with the Air Wing at El Toro in California. His squadron flew transports, mostly R4Ds.
We lived in a rural area around Costa Mesa, Calif., where I went to fifth and sixth grades. Across the street from our home was a huge expanse of open grassland populated by tumbleweeds, an occasional pheasant and not a few jackrabbits.
In the far distance at the edge of this sea of brown grass sat a huge hangar, which was the LTA base. Those letters stand for "Lighter than Air," which meant and still means "blimps."
That big field was our playground where we hunted with BB guns, built forts, explored fault cracks in the land and where I learned to smoke like Humphrey Bogart. The blimp hangar was our "Area 51," a mysterious place where giant airships silently cruised into their berths.
Micro memories of those days still flash through my mind whenever I see Marine Corps or Navy squadron designations spelled out. They begin with the letter "V" which means "Heavier than Air," a throwback to those old days when blimps were quite common.
Hydrogen filled airships once ran intercontinental passenger service, but the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937 pretty much derailed that German effort. They didn’t have access to large quantities of helium; therefore, all of their ships were bombs.
It’s amazing how much difference just adding one tiny neutron and electron to a hydrogen atom makes. However, helium production isn’t always benign. Some methods can make cities disappear. Remember the Cold War?
Let us mention the gas also makes grown men talk like one of the Chipmunks. Sometimes Mother Nature definitely shows a twisted sense of humor.
So what brought me to this particular subject was recent news about high-tech airships now being developed in California, not all that far from where we lived. Applying new space-age materials, composites along with propulsion and aerodynamic efficiencies lead some entrepreneurs to believe they can move cargo cost effectively.
This commercial adaptation of LTA ships has been tried before with limited successes. (There was a time when plans for LTA ships were being made for Craven County.) Of course, we’re all familiar with the Goodyear blimp and its messaging during ball games.
This time around developers are focusing on prodigious tonnage they intend to move around the planet. I’m skeptical that even with astronomical lifting capabilities, dodging weather and moving at bicycle speeds might be a crippling economic albatross around their bulging necks.
Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting to watch. Lately we humans have been expanding travel imaginations from both ends. Spanning the spectrum from lumbering behemoths to private-enterprise space vehicles, there’s amazing new stuff in the pipeline.
For the present I’m looking forward to seeing how these new LTA ships work out. I’ve seen pictures of one ship under construction and it appears quite sleek. But, of course, there’s a limit to just how sleek any air bag can be.
At the official unveiling I imagine Elton John singing "The Blimp Is Back!" That seems appropriate.
Otis Gardner’s column appears here weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.