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Weather Could Determine When MZ-3A Airship Arrives in Gulf

By Kirstie Hettinga, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
July 08, 2010, 3:19:10 AM EDT

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Wind speeds may determine when cleanup efforts in the Gulf can expect to get a boost from the MZ-3A airship, which was deployed to help monitor the location of the oil spill.

Already, the blimp has been delayed because of rough weather. It was originally scheduled to arrive Tuesday, July 6. Some reports estimate that the airship will now arrive Friday.

Winds off the Louisiana coast typically blow at about 7-14 mph. However, Expert Senior Meteorologist Paul Walker said wind speeds can jump up to 30-40 mph near thunderstorms. Hit-or-miss thunderstorms and scattered precipitation are expected in the region for the next few days.

Jim Thiele, President of the American Blimp Corporation, which manufactured the MZ-3A airship, said weather is a factor in the three modes of blimp operation: mooring on the ground, takeoff and landing, and in-flight.

Thiele said on the ground, airships can handle very severe weather.

In terms of takeoff and landing, wind and wind turbulence are the weather factors taken into consideration. Thiele said winds up to 20 knots (23 mph) are not a problem, and airships can handle takeoff and landing in even higher winds, up to about 40 mph.

According to Thiele, "it's more the turbulence" that must be taken into consideration.

"Steady winds are not the issue," he said. Thiele said flying in the airship is "kind of like being a boat on the water," and likened turbulence to ocean waves.

The buoyancy of the airship is also affected by temperature. Thiele said the FAA regulations test the blimp in conditions as hot as 100 degrees, but said that airships are operated in the Middle East in much hotter weather.

The helium gas that holds the airship aloft is affected by temperature.

"In very hot weather, the airship can't lift as much," Thiele said.


A possible oil sheen is visible as barges lined up to block oil are viewed from the air in the Rigolets, which connects the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Borgne to Lake Pontchartrain, in New Orleans, La., Tuesday. The MZ-3A airship, which is expected to arrive this week, will be used to track the oil spill from the air. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In a press release, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Sareault said, “The airship will operate relatively close to shore, primarily supporting skimmers to maximize their effectiveness."

Sareault said that although there are different sensors, locating the oil will be handled by visual observation. He said, "The mission of overflights is to locate and direct surface assets to actionable oil — that is oil that can be burned, dispersed or skimmed.”

Among the advantages to using the MZ-3A is the fact that it can remain aloft for a 12-hour period — longer than helicopters or planes.

The blimp is expected to operate from a mooring southeast of Mobile Bay, Ala.

Thiele said the main weather concern "outside of tornadoes and hurricanes" is thunderstorms.

"You would avoid operations in those conditions," he said.

In general, Thiele said, airships are a lot more robust than people expect.

"They're kind of big and slow, but they're not fragile," he said.

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