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Wed, Apr 01, 2009

Airship Company To Enter LSA Market

Some Minor Technical Issues To Be Ironed Out

ANN APRIL 1st "SPECIAL" EDITION: Worldwide Aeros, a California company engaged in development of advanced, rigid airships for freight, business and luxury tour applications, will apparently have two big news items to announce next week. While the company has remained tight-lipped about both developments, ANN has learned from industry sources that the Aeroscraft ML 866 airship will see its first public release as a light sport aircraft, and that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has signed on as lead customer and development partner.

The idea that a 200-foot, multi-ton airship could be manufacturer-certified as an LSA is already raising eyebrows in many circles, but the decision to move forward is reportedly based on a regulatory loophole which is clearly documented.

Since the ML866 performs vertical takeoffs as a lighter-than-air craft using helium for buoyancy, its maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is, by definition, zero... far below than 1,320 lb. weight limit for LSA.

"These guys really did their homework," says Ivanna Mounty, president of the Canadian Airship Federation, who has followed development closely, and who hopes to be among the first customers for the newly-dubbed MLSA866. "Top speed, landing and takeoff speeds and control simplicity were within LSA bounds right from the start."

She adds, "They figured out early on that the only thing keeping the 866 out of LSA was the twin turboprops. The new version is powered by a single Rotax 912 ULS piston engine driving a Hartzell propeller, mounted on the nose of the craft. It looks a little geeky, like a manatee wearing a beanie, but it works."

The result is an LSA with over 5,000 square feet of cabin space, and options including luxury hotel suites, complete internet connectivity, office furniture, and an exercise center. In keeping the aircraft within the spirit of LSA, all such amenities will be designed for a maximum of pilot plus one passenger.

Another source close to the company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a true Part 103 ultralight version was briefly considered, again based on the ML866's novel zero MTOW. "The five-gallon fuel capacity proved the limiting factor," said our source. "That turned out to be just enough fuel to make two or three full turns, and required spending the rest of a flight just drifting with the wind. Marketing surveys suggested that wouldn't sell.

"There were also reliability issues with the 128-foot throttle cable leading to the Rotax 503 two-stroke."

Company officials are expected to announce a press conference next week to elaborate on details, and to make the big announcement of their signing of Pfizer as a development partner for the Part 23 certificated version of the ML866. But the beans have already been spilled by a California advertising writer recently involved in another project for Pfizer.

Pete Reiser, who describes himself as a free-lance ad consultant, gave ANN exclusive insight into the occasion which led to Pfizer's interest in the ML866. "For years, the company has marketed its best-known product to men using ads featuring midlife icons. Ads depicting participation in sports, men playing guitars, and even a vintage Corvette covered in soap suds were all part of an escalating strategy of erotic imagery.

"I happened to be in a waiting area at Pfizer headquarters when I found myself in a chance conversation with CEO Jeff Kindler about this new airship, and how it might be a perfect fit for the product. At the time, it turns out, the company was looking at escalating its testosterone-based advertising approach using very light jets. But I told Jeff this airship was blue like the product, 200 feet long, had a rigid hull, and endurance greater than that of any jet. When he got a look at the artist's conception of the ML866 rising over a football stadium, he almost hurt himself running for his checkbook."

Development of the ML866 is projected to cost $40 million through FAA certification. Unconfirmed word from a source within Worldwide Aeros is that the Pfizer version of the ML866 will be powered by two gigantic V-twin piston engines, designed to look like those which power Harley Davidson motorcycles.



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