Patrol Airship Concept Evaluation (PACE) Trials, Airship Industries, Weeksville,
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Patrol Airship Concept Evaluation (PACE) Trials, Airship Industries, Weeksville,

October 17, 2019

The Patrol Airship Concept Evaluation (PACE)
Trials in 1983 at the former Weeksville Naval Air Station
(NAS) North Carolina undertaken by Airship Industries The PACE Trials were a follow up from the
joint evaluation of lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft in 1982 conducted by the USA’s
Coast Guard and Department of Defense. The study undertaken by them was “to determine
the feasibility of developing an airship to meet Navy and Coast Guard needs”. To facilitate things, the US Navy contracted
Airship Industries Ltd (AI) in the UK (headed by Roger Munk) for lease of an AI SKS500 airship
for evaluation purposes; considered by them to be the same size as the Goodyear Blimp,
but with a payload capacity by weight of plus 40% – enabled by vectored thrust arrangements
to balance serious all-up weight change without load exchange when hovering. After all, airships
enable long endurance patrol with significant loiter capability to remain over an area of
interest (proved in both WWI and II), but need ways to balance aerostatic lift (buoyancy)
with weight and/or other means (vertical thrust) when there’s little aerodynamic lift from
airspeed. At the time’s founder Charles Luffman was an aspiring aircraft engineer
in his early thirties employed by AI in 1981 to help with general design, engineering and
structural analysis to enable a type certificate for the SKS500 airship series (awarded 21
Nov 1984, believed to be the first for an airship). After completing an urgent task
to design and then project manage the development, installation and
test of a new better undercarriage needed, he was tasked to facilitate arrangements for
the subsequent PACE Trials at Weeksville in 1983. This led to similar design/engineering and
project management work for SKS500-03 modifications desired for a deployable boat below its gondola
plus means for crew access and boat recovery with the crew aboard. The task also included
installation of a rescue winch above the gondola’s entrance door. The task involved: various modifications of
the deployable boat (an Avon Sea Rider), the SKS500-
03’s gondola (for new apertures and reinforcements) and design of necessary winch mounting parts. He also interacted with the electrical systems’
engineer Tony Pattison, production/assembly teams
and airship crew led by Peter Buckley, who also was the test pilot. Charles project managed the modifications/installations,
seeing it all through as one of the trials test engineers with Tony. The boat modifications
were undertaken in the UK by Aerospace Construction Ltd (Ascon) who also made the winch mounting
parts. Their team, led by Mick Paton, were proficient
in boat construction/modification and composite structures. Indeed, Ascon (headed by Jeremy
Munk, Roger’s older brother) was a close partner of AI, where they worked together
on this and many other projects undertaken by AI. Charles first went to the USA in 1983, staying
in hotel accommodation at nearby Elizabeth City NC
with the Ascon team. The short route from there to Weeksville took him past the US Coast
Guard Air Base, whose people assisted the programme
and acted as observers throughout the trials. The former Naval Air Station near Weeksville
(a village in NC surrounded by fields and woods) is
sited next to the Pasquotank river, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles
away, so was an ideal sparsely populated location for the
trials. Indeed, NAS Weeksville during WWII was an active station with numerous airships
housed/deployed from there for coastal patrol duties, which the Coast Guard now serves. The main thing to look out for was snakes,
which sometimes were found curled up in quiet places in the vast dimly lit No 2 airship
hangar, used by AI for airship assembly, maintenance and so forth. Charles found one in what Americans
call the Rest Room. Waters from the Pasquotank to the East USA
NC coastline are protected by the Outer Banks, a sandy strip of land with dunes that the
Wright Brothers flew from. This was a great place to go for relaxation and sailing on
the calm warm shallow inland waters – also fishing, crabbing and clams, specialities
of the region. It all went reasonably well, so the airship was soon off (launched) for
a boat deployment test onto the Pasquotank river. Photos show scenes snapped
from the airship’s large and open windows plus via
open apertures in the gondola’s floor for crew access to/from the boat and the bifilar
winch lines holding it. These lines could be released by crew in the boat using a simple
lever. However this was the first time for such deployment – so
unmanned. It was found during deployment that while
the lines were short the boat was stable below the gondola. However, as it descended with
the lines becoming longer, it began to wobble (yawing) and sway (sideways) with bigger oscillations. This was bound to happen, but the test was
needed to discover limits for safe operation without means for stabilisation. It was found
to be “not so bad” as pessimists would think and didn’t cause the lines to become
twisted, although it would spin if the lines were too long. However, when it entered the water (with a
splash) water was taken aboard increasing its weight. It therefore was quickly agreed
with the pilot (a little anxious) to just cut it free using the winch line cutters.
There also were hand wire cutters onboard (just in case). The test thus was over and
the winches needed repair. Then, off again for another trial over the
Pasquotank with crew following in the Sea Rider. Mick (a
noble chap) volunteered for the test – a simulated rescue recovery operation from the
boat to the airship. Apart from remarks by him (a big
chap) that he had to keep his arms down to prevent slipping from the strop, the test
was successful. The trials demonstrated that airships can
be used for such purposes, although refinements of the
arrangements were desirable. Such refinements naturally would be part of a development programme
for such airships following either an agreed order for them or further contracts to continue
the investigations. Regrettably, the US evaluation didn’t lead
to further development. Nonetheless, similar and later 1985 trials
with the SKS600-01 for the French Navy with a modified
Zodiac boat (the ‘bat boat’ with deployable fins) and numerous other modifications (also
schemed and project managed by Charles Luffman) did lead to successful stable deployment/recovery
with crew onboard; where Roger with a flight test engineer (Mike Cuming) were the Guinea
Pigs for the test. Roger, in the sky-blue wetsuit, is seated fore – a true leader,
sadly missed after passing away 2010. Charles was in a similar Zodiac boat at the time,
from which the photo was taken (by a colleague), on Grafham Water. The US Navy in 1986 subsequently contracted
further airship development work via an alliance between Westinghouse and Airship Industries
for the later designated YEZ-2A. Here is a photo of Charles beside a model
of the gondola taken in the foyer of Bond House (former AI HQ in Chiswick, London) that
the draughtsmen he directed for it made. Unfortunately, none of these projects were
followed up to enable service entry, leaving the world devoid of such capability. Why?
Airship Industries closed in 1990. However, is the
place for them!

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