Sergey Brin Has A Secret Plan To Put Airships Back In The Skies
The billionaire and co-founder of Google has quietly helped modernize a long-forgotten form of flight—one that could be used to transport cargo or assist during humanitarian relief missions.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- “Welcome to LTA: Where we are going to darken the skies.”
This is how Alan Weston often greets people visiting his factory. He’s partly joking, partly expressing aspiration. Weston is the chief executive officer of LTA Research & Exploration LLC, maker of airships. LTA, which stands for “Lighter Than Air,” has operated mostly in secrecy since its founding in 2016 at the behest of its backer, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. That is, until now. After years of work, LTA is getting ready to unveil the Pathfinder 1, the first in what the company intends to be a sky-darkening fleet of airships.
Built inside a giant hangar in Mountain View, California, the Pathfinder 1 is 122 meters long (400 feet) and 20 meters in diameter at its fattest part. From the outside, it looks much like any airship you’ve ever seen in photos. It’s white and tapered at the back and front, and it has a dozen propellers along with a gondola. Inside the airship, though, are intricate patterns of carbon-fiber tubing and titanium joints that give it structure and strength and 13 helium bladders that provide lift—and nonflammable lift at that. It’s a fraction of the size of the vehicles LTA plans to build in the future, and yet no rigid airship of its scale has been constructed since the 1930s.
Exactly why Brin wants a fleet of airships remains a partial mystery. He has declined many interview requests to discuss LTA. Still, over the past couple of years, Weston has let me observe the construction of Pathfinder 1 and the early stages of its successors, and Brin’s rationale seems straightforward enough: He just likes airships. He and Weston think they could haul cargo in an environmentally friendly fashion and deliver supplies to disaster zones. One day, luxe versions might appeal to passengers who want to travel in a leisurely, exotic fashion from, say, London to New York over the course of a couple of days.
The airship business barely exists today. There are blimps that putter around stadiums with ads on their sides, and others that take photos. There are a handful of rigid airships that conduct recreational flights in Germany. And that’s more or less it. This has been an industry in search of a booming, profitable purpose for a very long time.
Brin is worth an estimated $105 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, so he can have an airship empire if he wants one. Neither he nor his representatives will comment on how much he’s put into LTA, but employees on the factory floor whisper that it’s easily more than $250 million so far. Weston, though, takes LTA’s business case quite seriously and very much wants to keep his 250 workers employed and busy far into the future. He looks to perfect his early models and start mass production. “I’m fascinated and excited by the potential of airships to be built very quickly with a smaller team than was used in the past and with materials that are affordable,” Weston says. “And we’ve invented many methods that will enable that.”
To which you should say, “WTF? Are we really talking about ?”
Very few people reading this article have ever ridden in a proper airship. Even the Goodyear Blimp isn’t what Brin and Weston have in mind—those are just big, inflated bags with a minimal gondola stuck to the underside. A blimp lacks a sturdy inner structure, so its engines must be attached to the gondola, which, among many other limitations, makes conditions noisy and inelegant for the pilots and passengers. If you want to ride in a true rigid airship, your best bet is to head to Friedrichshafen, Germany, where Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin conducted the first flight of one 123 years ago.
Located in southern Germany on Lake Constance, Friedrichshafen and its 60,000 residents have created an airship wonderland. There’s an airship museum where you can walk inside a partial model of the and see what its living quarters and dining areas were like. Various airship sculptures dot the idyllic streets; souvenir shops overflow with airship memorabilia. And when the weather is right, tourists fly in a 75-meter-long Zeppelin NT. A 90-minute flight costs about $800.
The advantages of airship travel are obvious from the time you leave the ground, as I felt firsthand earlier this year. Unlike in an airplane, where you’re pushed against your seat, or on a helicopter, where you’re praying that a god favors you, the initial ascent in an airship is slow and smooth. Once at altitude, you float gently, effortlessly. The experience seems to be some kind of wizardry. You can even open the windows, stick your head outside and take in the glorious countryside below.
The world once shared in the town’s enthusiasm for dirigibles. France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the UK built hundreds of them in the early part of the 20th century. And no country made more than the US. At its peak, Goodyear Aircraft could pump out 11 a month. Militaries wanted them, to perform bombings and reconnaissance missions. There were ships of all different sizes, and some that could perform unique functions. The US Navy, for example, had one type of airship that could grab a plane on a hook in midair, refuel it and then send it on its way. For tourists, airships were cruise ships in the sky. Some voyages took them all the way from Germany to Brazil.
Airships were the transportation of the future—until the disaster in 1937. Obsessives still argue about how and why that doomed craft exploded: It was full of combustible hydrogen, coated with combustible chemicals, may have been vulnerable to static or lightning or who knows. Whatever happened, it ended the airship craze, especially for civilians.
Silicon Valley doesn’t do history well. To the extent that it has anything in the way of monuments, it’s a trio of enormous hangars at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View. The structures have an oval, alien-spaceship quality. If you’re driving on Highway 101, you can’t miss them.
The US Navy began work on the hangars in the 1930s, and they were built to be homes for some of the largest airships in the US fleet. Hangar One covers 8 acres and is made of metal; Hangars Two and Three were built later out of wood because by then World War II was looming and the US needed all the metal it could get. They’re among the largest freestanding structures in the world.
Brin and Weston are both long familiar with Ames Research Center. Google, whose headquarters is 2 miles away, has worked with NASA on several projects over the years. Brin and Google co-founder Larry Page struck a deal in 2007 to fly their private planes out of Ames. Weston, an aerospace engineering veteran, worked there as a director of programs until 2013. Through acquaintances, Brin and Weston got to know each other and bonded over their shared love of airships.
In 2008 a startup called Airship Ventures took over one of the hangars and began offering sightseeing rides. The company had acquired one of the Zeppelin NTs and could fly a dozen people at a time. The first person to take a ride in the airship was Brin, who also had secretly funded the startup.
Running the business proved difficult, says Brian Hall, a co-founder and the CEO. It took a long time for Airship Ventures to get the aircraft and its pilots certified in the US. And, because there was no existing infrastructure to support these vehicles, the company went to great lengths to train people and acquire everything it needed to keep the Zeppelin NT airworthy. As time went on, its business expanded into advertising and government work, but it was hard to ensure the airship was available at the right place at the right time. “We had three revenue streams but only one ship,” Hall says. “The needs of one would be in conflict with the other.”
By the end of 2012, the company ran out of money, Hall says. For whatever reason, Brin declined to provide a lifeline, and the company shut down. Hall had wanted to acquire more airships and perhaps even build a larger rigid version just like LTA. He says the key to success in this business is to go big, with plenty of people, parts and aircraft at the ready. “We were pretty darn close to making it work,” Hall says. “It’s extra frustrating to see that this has taken 10 years to happen.”
Brin let Airships Ventures disappear, but he didn’t give up on the idea. He and Bayshore Global Management LLC, his family office, reached out to any and all relevant players, including Lockheed Martin Corp. and a smaller company called Aeros, to build a large, rigid airship. At the end of 2013, Weston left his job at Ames and became a consultant for Brin. Weston traveled the world, including to Friedrichshafen, to collect knowledge and look over past innovations. “I did a study for Bayshore on what kind of airship to build and who should build it,” he says. Ultimately, Weston came up with his own design for a large airship that could be built right inside Hangar Two at Ames. Brin signed off, and soon enough, Weston was busy making prototypes and hiring a team.
Weston is 66. He’s skinny, with gray hair, and almost always wears jeans, a white dress shirt and a black baseball cap. He walks fast, often with a trail of people scurrying behind him trying to keep up with what he’s saying.
He has several claims to fame, the most notable of which might be bungee-jumping pioneer. While studying engineering at the University of Oxford in the 1970s, he was a founding member of the Dangerous Sports Club, which is exactly what it sounds like. As far as anyone can tell, they were the first people to think it was a good idea to attach themselves to a bungee cord and leap off a bridge. Weston first bungee jumped in England and did so again off the Golden Gate Bridge. He eluded San Francisco police by detaching himself from the cord, falling into the water, hopping in a waiting boat and then cruising to a getaway car that drove him straight to the airport. Weston, who also once flew around the British houses of Parliament in a microlight aircraft while wearing a gorilla suit and playing a saxophone, is not lacking in chutzpah.
He eventually made his way to the US Air Force where, among other projects, he worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, the Ronald Reagan-era space-based missile defense shield. His job was, basically, to make space weapons. He ended up at NASA Ames in 2006, where he was charged with numerous projects, including the development of a low-cost lunar lander.
For the past few years, Weston and his team have been occupying Hangar Two and bringing Pathfinder 1 to life, bit by bit. Their main workspace is the heart of the hangar itself—a cavernous expanse with white-epoxied floors and then a lot of nothing, until you get to the curved framework of the wooden roof some 200 feet overhead. LTA has converted one side of the hangar into makeshift production facilities. One for electronics. One for carbon fiber. One for metal. And so on. There’s office space in a trailer outside, in a parking lot.
The Pathfinder 1 is shaped like a very tubby cigar. At the front end there’s a large metal bolt that will connect to a mooring mast. Scattered along the length of the body are a series of electric propellers. The gondola underneath at mid-cigar has room for a couple of pilots and a few passengers. Large, white stabilizing fins are in the rear.
Inside the main body, carbon-fiber tubes are arranged in geometric patterns and held in place by titanium joints. The interior has about a dozen sections, each with its own helium bladder, or what LTA calls cells. Laser sensors measure the volume of helium and estimate available lift.
Brin would prefer that the airship run on a green technology such as fuel cells. For now, a pair of diesel generators fastened within the airship’s body sends juice to banks of lithium-ion batteries that run the propellers. Solar panels on top of the airship will provide extra energy. The Pathfinder I is fully fly-by-wire, meaning its steering and other controls are electronic, as opposed to the mechanical linkages of yore.
The materials alone represent huge advances in design. In the past, rigid airships were made of wood and metal. Weston and his team spent years developing lighter, sturdier carbon-fiber tubes and the associated bindings and adhesives needed to fasten them to the titanium joints just right. The helium cells and the airship’s body all went through similar experimental trials to find, and sometimes invent, materials strong and resilient enough to withstand atmospheric undulations and intense beatings from the sun.
Some of LTA’s biggest breakthroughs came in the assembly phase. Historically, companies such as Goodyear would put up a mass of scaffolding to build an airship layer by layer. This meant workers were performing delicate operations at great heights, and injuries were common. “In the old days, people were climbing up 100-foot ladders,” Weston says. LTA developed a rotisserie system where the entire airship skeleton rotates, allowing workers to do their thing mostly at ground level, without putting themselves in danger. Making this work required lasers that measured the position of every tube and joint on the airship and actuators to shift the hulking mass a couple of millimeters at a time in perfect precision.
The rotisserie was thought up by Kyle Kepley, who in a previous career wrote software for orchestrating large-scale fireworks shows. Kepley has been an airship buff since childhood and builds his own models for fun. He met Weston online when LTA was searching for materials for its small prototypes, and he ended up with his dream job. “There have been other airship startups and projects,” Kepley says. “But they’ve all struggled—not because of bad designs but because they’ve run into money troubles. It takes a multibillionaire.”
Because there aren’t tons of airship engineers around, LTA has had to hire a lot of career switchers willing to train up. Mechanical engineers August Lang and Daniel Ziperovich, for example, used to do studio art and furniture design, respectively. Early on at LTA, they cleaned bird guano off the carbon-fiber tubes before visits from Brin. But soon they were designing the Pathfinder I’s internal gangways. “I like the airship in the same way that I like art,” Lang says. “It’s really just a unique opportunity to build something very cool.”
In May 2022, LTA held a news conference in Akron, inside an even larger hangar called the Airdock. Built in 1929, the giant, black, trapezoidal fortress was the birthplace of some of Goodyear’s grandest airships. Like much of Akron, however, the hangar had fallen on tough times. In front of a couple dozen city officials and reporters, Weston vowed to bring the airship glory days back, with the Airdock becoming part of LTA’s expanding operation.
Pathfinder 1 will have its unveiling in California and then begin a long series of tests before it can head into the open skies. It has 28 tons of lift and should be able to travel at least 2,000 nautical miles in one go, Weston says. Its successor, to be built in Akron, will stretch to 185 meters long, and will fly faster and farther and carry more stuff. According to Weston, LTA’s airships could one day carry as much as 200 tons of cargo each, almost 10 times the amount of something like a Boeing 737.
It may seem a stretch, but Weston, Brin and the scattered others in the airship field are quite convinced that these things could function as a viable, green means for transporting freight that could compete with planes, trains and ships. Brin has a particular interest in disaster relief and says airships have a unique role there, too. Airships don’t need a runway or much infrastructure at all to deliver supplies to a place in need. “When you arrive at a disaster site, you often show up and the place is wrecked,” Weston says, pointing out that ports, airfields and roads can be inaccessible. “That’s where an airship can help.”
This kind of talk is intoxicating to the people in Akron. Almost everyone at LTA’s event seems to recount stories of watching Goodyear blimps fly during their childhood, and they’ve longed for their children to have similar experiences. “Whenever we heard an airship, my whole family would run out of the house and wave to it,” says Andrea Deyling, an Ohio native and airship pilot who’s now the vice president for flight operations for LTA. The company has already hired a number of Goodyear airship veterans in town and set up programs to recruit students from the University of Akron. “Their goal is to make airships safer, faster and more manufacturable,” says Mike Baumgartner, a retired engineer who once worked at the Airdock for Goodyear Aerospace and is now an LTA consultant. “It’s really exciting to see these 100-year-old things come back to life.”
Some airship enthusiasts, however, wonder whether Brin will stick with the investment it will take to keep LTA going. Katharine Board flies the Zeppelin NT in Germany and is a longtime member of the small but elite club of airship pilots. She points out that the only reason the Zeppelin flights have continued is because of their unusual backing from Count Zeppelin’s foundation and patent royalties tied to his work. “It was the first airship project that was given the time and the money to really develop something special,” she says. “A lot of these projects get a few million or sometimes even a billion, but that goes very quickly.”
For now, Brin isn’t talking. Most people at the company still operate under omerta and refer to him as “Bayshore Global” rather than by his name. Asked about Brin’s day-to-day involvement with the craft, Weston says, “I’d like to really keep the focus of the conversation on the humanitarian relief mission and the airship design itself.”
There is, however, one major tidbit that managed to slip out while reporting this article: Brin would very much like to go on the airship’s first flight.
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