Navy revives blimp flights State to honor 28 troops who paid ultimate price
By Evonne Coutros
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
HACKENSACK, N.J. — A naval reconnaissance program — which uses a blimp for surveillance and intelligence missions — has been reintroduced at joint base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey after nearly 50 years.
The "lighter than air" program is a fleet of one at this point, with the $3.6 million MZ-3A airship, built about four years ago, patrolling the eastern skies.
"It is a fair-weather craft," said Bert Race, a retired Navy commander and government flight representative for the project.
The airship has ties to the ill-fated Hindenburg, as it honors a Navy serviceman from New Jersey who was one of the last surviving members of the ground crew from the Hindenburg explosion at the Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station in 1937.
The American flag being flown on the 178-foot airship is a tribute to John A. Iannaccone, a 1930 graduate of the Navy's Enlisted Men's Lighter-Than-Air School at Lakehurst.
Iannaccone died in 2005 at age 94, and the 5-by-9 1/4-foot flag that was draped over his casket now flies some 9,500 feet up in the air off the stern of the airship.
"This is his legacy," said Rick Zitarosa, vice president and historian of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society. "It's very fitting because this station is the center for lighter-than-air excellence."
Iannaccone served as an engine mechanic aboard the giant dirigible USS Los Angeles from 1930 to 1931 — including its 27-day deployment to the 1931 Panama Fleet Exercises.
And he was part of the Navy ground crew securing the ship's tail when the German zeppelin Hindenburg burned at Lakehurst on May 6, 1937.
The 804-foot-long Hindenburg was the largest hydrogen airship of its time. It had 22 takeoffs and landings from Lakehurst in addition to the fatal flight that carried 97 passengers and crew, Zitarosa said.
Chicago radio reporter Herb Morrison spoke the now famous words "Oh, the humanity," as the airship caught fire some 200 feet up, in bad weather and lightning. Iannaccone was at the scene when 36 people lost their lives, many running from the site with burned clothing and skin.
The Navy ceased lighter-than-air operations in August 1962, Zitarosa said.
But now they could be poised to make a comeback.
"Airships consume little fuel relative to their payload and endurance capabilities," Race said. "Although slower than fixed or rotary wing aircraft, airships offer extreme utility."
Officials said they plan to use the airship for reconnaissance, communication, intelligence and surveillance in the U.S.
"It's an extreme green platform," Race said. "It burns only 10 gallons of fuel per hour, far less than most other manned aircraft under the U.S. Department of Defense."
It burns even less fuel in what the Navy calls "loiter" mode, when it is hovering.
If the green light is given by the Defense Department, the military could put more blimps in the skies.
"It is similar to those flown over stadiums but with government modifications," Race said. "The Navy has a legacy with the airship, but we might see a resurgence of airships in the services — not just the Navy," he said. "We are very proud to have John Iannaccone's flag on it all the time."