Blimp joins anti-smuggling patrols off Florida

MIAMI Tue Jun 24, 2008 5:52pm EDT

A helium-filled blimp is seen in this photo released by Airship Management Service in Atlanta, June 24, 2008. REUTERS/Airship Management Service/Handout

A helium-filled blimp is seen in this photo released by Airship Management Service in Atlanta, June 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Airship Management Service/Handout

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MIAMI (Reuters) - With oil prices rising sky-high, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard will test a helium-filled blimp to see if it can supplement the fuel-hungry aircraft that search the Florida Straits for smugglers and boats in distress.

The Navy is leasing a Skyship 600, about the size of a Boeing 747, for the six-week test mission between Florida's southern coast and Cuba, Coast Guard Lt. Matthew Moorlag said on Tuesday.

The manned ship is held aloft by nonflammable helium and propelled by two Porsche 930 engines that consume 10 to 12 gallons of regular gasoline per hour.

"It's considered a very green machine," said George Spyrou, president of Airship Management Services Inc, which owns and operates the blimp. "A regular jet uses more fuel to travel from the gate to the taxiway than we would to fly for a whole week."

The airship has a bathroom and can stay aloft up to 52 hours without refueling but the surveillance flights off Florida will be limited to about eight hours to guard against crew fatigue, Spyrou said.

His company in Greenwich, Connecticut, has a contract for a little under $1 million for the test. It will supply two pilots to float the ship at an altitude of 1,500 to 3,000 feet while a crewman operates the radar and other scanning equipment.

Navy and Coast Guard technicians on the ground in Key West, Florida, will monitor the data and direct other vessels where they're needed to chase drug or people smugglers or perform rescues.

"Basically it provides that eye in the sky for us so we can see who's out there," Moorlag said.

The blimp can travel at about 57 mph (91 kph) and can fly in the same weather conditions as other aircraft. Unlike a helicopter, it does not vibrate, so it might provide a smoother platform for some monitoring instruments, Moorlag said.

Ad-covered blimps are a familiar sight over stadiums. Air Management Services' blimps also flew over the Athens and Atlanta Olympic Games, providing a platform for aerial filming and helping security officials keep an eye on the crowds.

The Air Force has long used stationary blimps, all called "Fat Albert," in the lower Florida Keys to relay U.S. government, anti-communist broadcasts to Cuba and assist in coastal surveillance, but those are tethered to the ground.

"This is different because it's mobile," Moorlag said. "We can move it into an area we'd like to concentrate on."

(Editing by Michael Christie and Eric Beech)

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