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Make or Break Time for Blue Devil 2

Jun. 19, 2012 - 05:24PM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
Blue Devil 2 in its hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Blue Devil 2 in its hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C. (Mav6)
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Mav6, the small company founded in 2007 with big plans to shake up tactical intelligence, expects to learn shortly whether the U.S. Navy will take over development of its football-field-sized airship from the Air Force.

For now, the optionally piloted, 370-foot-long airship continues to float in a hangar in Elizabeth City, N.C., with plans for a first flight, and perhaps the future of Mav6, hanging in the balance. The Air Force has said it will not fund the project beyond June 30.

Mav6 executives said about 90 percent of the 80-person company’s revenues have come from development of the M1400 airship — better known as Blue Devil 2, the name of its sensor package. An earlier version of the package, Blue Devil 1, flies on a turboprop.

Mav6 has been searching for a new sponsor in recent months, arguing that that ship would be great for patrolling borders or the open seas for pirates and drug runners.

The Navy, which once made regular use of airships for maritime patrols, emerged as the top prospect. Spokeswoman Lt. Courtney Hillson said June 19 that “at this time” she had no information about the possibility of the Navy adopting the program.

By now, the airship was supposed to be fusing signals intelligence and wide-area surveillance imagery in the skies over Afghanistan to aid in the hunt for improvised explosive devices and those who plant them. During development, the craft’s tailfins came in overweight, forcing engineers at subcontractor Eagle Aviation to pull composite material from them and begin a series of new tests. Engineers suspect that if the Navy adopts the airship, the fins will need rebuilt.

The airship project began under Army management, but in 2011 the Defense Department transferred it to the Air Force’s Big Safari aircraft group, which had rushed the camera and signals intelligence-equipped Liberty planes to Afghanistan. Big Safari decided it needed to hire a larger and more experienced company — L-3 Communications — to test the aircraft and operate it in Afghanistan, industry officials said.

The airship’s anticipated operating costs came in at $190 million a year — higher than anticipated — and the Air Force decided to stop funding the project.

After the Air Force announcement, Mav6 and Eagle Aviation pressed forward with the tailfin tests, and Mav6 argued it could operate the craft for about half of the $190 million expected with L-3 Communications in that role.

The Air Force was not swayed. On May 23, the service ordered Mav6 to disassemble the craft for packaging into a 40-foot container for storage at a site in Texas. Deflation will have to be done shortly, said a Mav6 executive who asked not to be named.

If the Navy ends up adopting the airship, the project will have been run by the three largest branches of the U.S. military — the Army, Air Force and Navy.

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