Airlines

New Generation of Airships Promise Cheap Cargo-Hauling

I want my air yacht

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Inside a decommissioned military hangar in Tustin, California, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, sits what at first glance looks like the world's biggest Mylar balloon.

Closer inspection reveals a skeleton of carbon tubes clothed in a silver skin—an unwitting visitor might wonder if he'd wandered onto the set of a sci-fi film. Instead, this shiny monster, dubbed the Aeroscraft, is Igor Pasternak's shot at proving to the world that helium-filled airships, long ago eclipsed by planes, have a bright future in commercial cargo.

"What we're doing is revolution," says Pasternak, who started the predecessor to Worldwide Aeros Corp. in his native Ukraine and then moved the closely held company to Los Angeles in 1993. "We're establishing a new market."

Pasternak, the company's chief executive officer, wants to be the first to harness helium for multi-ton deliveries. He envisions thousands of 500-foot-long zeppelins capable of traversing the U.S. at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, ferrying mining equipment to roadless stretches of Alaska and bringing organic strawberries to gourmet supermarkets in Manhattan, at a quarter the cost of a cargo plane.