Research airship to ply Island skies next year
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
A sight not seen in Hawai'i's skies since World War II is about to make a reappearance as Science & Technology International moves forward with plans to build a new, multimillion-dollar blimp and operate it in the Islands.
The craft, also called an airship, is expected to arrive next year as part of a five-year, $50 million contract between Hawai'i-based STI and the Office of Naval Research to develop optical imaging to see through water and detect such things as submarines and mines.
Linda Jameson, director of corporate communications for STI, said the airship will be used primarily for military applications and the company has held briefings on the project with Gov. Ben Cayetano, Mayor Jeremy Harris and other community groups.
"We've briefed many people and are very pleased with the reactions we've received from the community and really look forward to bringing (the airship) to Hawai'i," Jameson said. "We are not releasing a lot of information yet because we are finalizing the details."
Those details include the final cost, dimensions and exact use of the airship.
Lighter-than-air craft have not been important for commercial transportation since before World War II. The 1937 Hindenburg disaster remains the best-known image of a once-promising industry. Commercial blimps operate today primarily as novelties, carrying advertising and filming sports events.
But the helium-filled airship is considered critical to STI's research because it can remain stable and stationary and stay in the air above targeted locations far longer than other types of aircraft, Jameson said.
It also could have applications in such things as search-and-rescue missions and whale counts, she said.
Tweet Coleman, the Federal Aviation Administration's representative in the Pacific region, said STI has not yet filed an application to bring in its airship.
"It's a very extensive process to bring an operator on board," Coleman said. "We have had two operators in the past 15 years that have attempted to bring an airship into the state and neither of them really came to fruition."
Coleman said the cost, time involved and a misunderstanding of Hawai'i's weather conditions have prevented others from bringing in airships. But it can be done, she said.
"Those companies were looking at more of a commercial operation and the difference here is we are planning military applications," Jameson said. "We are pretty confident we can pull it off."
Mary Steiner, chief executive officer of The Outdoor Circle, wants to make sure the airship is not being used for advertising.
"We are concerned about having signs and the size of the logo going on it," Steiner said. "I'm also concerned about the air tours and pulling this thing over Waikiki Beach, disturbing both beach-goers and residents."
Jameson said using the airship for advertising or passengers is not being considered at this time.
"We will not be operating off Waikiki with our military applications," Jameson said. "Right now we are strictly focused on force protection and military applications."
STI develops military systems that use light to detect and identify underwater objects. STI also uses its optical technology in cancer detection, environmental monitoring and analysis of underwater life and soil.
The company was founded in 1980 by several scientists and originally used optical sensing to improve the quality of images from space. Nick Susner, company chief executive officer, was hired as president in 1993 and changed the focus from studying space and stars to the human body and national defense, transforming it into one of the state's leading military contracting firms.
STI Industries has 125 employees and expects to add dozens more when the airship arrives.
Alan Hayashi, former executive director of the Hawai'i Convention Center Authority, has been brought on as program manager involved with finding a location for the hangar and the design and manufacture of the airship. A site on Kaua'i near the Pacific Missile Range Facility is being considered for the hangar.
Rear Adm. Joseph J. "Jim" McClelland Jr., who retired in July as commander of the 14th Coast Guard District in Hawai'i, is now director of Programs Management for STI and recently briefed the FAA on the project.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, who is affiliated with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said creating an optical system that can look through water would be a great advantage in anti-submarine warfare.
"That has always been one of the great problems of anti-submarine warfare seeing through water," Carroll said. "No one has demonstrated persuasively that they can look through water. The sonar systems where you listen for echoes has been the key to anti-submarine warfare for a long, long time. The ability to detect objects underwater is at the heart of all our modern anti-submarine warfare efforts."
Carroll said he has not heard of other blimps being used for this type of research, but it would likely be classified and not known to the general public anyway.
Reach James Gonser at email@example.com or 535-2431.