Entrepreneur is ready to prove his zeppelin idea is more than hot air
Few believed he could pull it off, but Igor Pasternak is about to begin test flights of a cargo-carrying airship that takes off and lands with a helicopter's precision.
Not long after arriving in Southern California — far from his native Ukraine — Igor Pasternak walked into an office building wearing a cheap pinstripe suit, an interpreter in tow. He wanted to fly a small blimp he was building but needed approval from the U.S. government.
Federal Aviation Administration engineer Maureen Moreland was dubious when the cigar-chomping, wild-haired Pasternak came to her desk. There weren't many airship makers in this country, and she wondered whether he was for real.
He had set up his Worldwide Aeros Corp. in Chatsworth at a former porn studio. He had only six employees, half of them family members.
"I didn't believe there was any chance he would make it through the certification process," said Moreland, who reviewed his application.
A few years later, in 2000, Pasternak's intricate engineering work passed muster, and he got permission to take the blimp airborne.
He eventually turned to a more ambitious feat: a massive cargo-carrying zeppelin that can take off and land with the precision of a helicopter. His Aeroscraft project was funded in part by the Pentagon, which saw it as a way to move supplies to remote battlefields.
In the coming days, Pasternak will strap himself into a seat next to the pilot in the zeppelin's glass cockpit when it makes its maiden flight above Tustin. His odyssey, which began during the Cold War, is about to reach a milestone few could have foreseen.
People have been wary of airships since 1937, when the giant Hindenburg burst into flames in front of news cameras, killing 35 people. The explosion of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin deflated the chances of lighter-than-air ships ever becoming a popular mode of travel. (A zeppelin is basically a blimp but with a rigid skeleton.)
With the Aeroscraft, Pasternak may realize his goal to erase the long-standing stigma. His life's work comes in the shape of a silver balloon nearly the size of a football field.
"It's beautiful," he said. "Just wait until you see it fly."
Pasternak, 49, was born in what is now Kazakhstan, and grew up in Lviv, a Ukrainian city of 700,000 near the Polish border in the former Soviet Union.
As a child, he became enamored with blimps after being captivated by pictures in a magazine. He earned a degree in civil engineering like his father, and worked for a Ukrainian university that designed a giant airship for the logging industry, but it was never built.
As a Jew, Pasternak said, he faced discrimination and had a limited future working in the Soviet Union's state-run aviation industry. When then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev initiated perestroika reforms in 1986 that allowed free enterprise, Pasternak formed his own company. With a small crew, he worked on the production of airships for use by advertisers and scientists. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and Pasternak's investment capital dried up. In 1993, he fled Russia and emigrated to the U.S. to start a blimp-making company.
Pasternak landed in Southern California for the same reasons that aerospace innovators have come here for more than a century: 300 days a year of blue skies and a pool of talented engineers.
He learned English by watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies — he said they were easier to understand — and became proficient enough to attract a handful of investors and customers.
The small blimps he first built cost about $3 million each and were soon in demand. They were used as flying billboards promoting brands such as MasterCard and Spalding sporting goods.
Pilot Corky Belanger says he has flown almost every airship built in the last 40 years. He calls Pasternak's Aeroscraft project "the culmination" of his career.
Tragedy struck in 2000, when Pasternak's sister Marina, 32, and Levon Samamyam, 35, an employee and friend, died repairing an airship at San Bernardino International Airport. Helium leaked into the balloon, suffocating the workers.
Worldwide Aeros moved to Montebello, where Pasternak continued working to find a way to keep airships grounded once the cargo is unloaded. Because the vessels are lighter than air, they tend to float away. Taking cargo on and off is difficult; every pound unloaded has to be replaced by another pound of ballast.
Then it hit him.
"I woke up in the middle of the night to start writing down equations to support the idea, and the solution started to make sense," Pasternak said.
The buoyancy system would use air just as a submarine uses water to submerge and surface at will.
When a submarine needs to dive, it takes on water to make it heavier. When the submarine needs to surface, it releases that water to become lighter. Certainly, then, Pasternak thought, an airship can control its weight by releasing and taking on air, controlling its heaviness or lightness.
When cargo is delivered, the Aeroscraft stays grounded by taking on air in its chambers and pressurizing helium. After the zeppelin is loaded, it rises by releasing the air and the helium.
In 2005, Pasternak's company was one of two to land a $3-million contract from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to do preliminary design work on a cargo-carrying airship.
It could fundamentally change the way airships operate."
— Tony Tether, retired DARPA director
The other company? The world's largest military contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.
Although Lockheed's design is a work in progress, Aeros went on to win an additional $50 million in funding from the Pentagon and NASA. The money enabled the company to grow to more than 100 employees.
"No one believed Igor could do what he did," said Tony Tether, retired DARPA director. "It could fundamentally change the way airships operate."
As the wars in the Middle East have waned, the chances of the Pentagon deploying an Aeroscraft any time soon are slim. Pasternak is now more focused on the commercial market.
He predicts that within a decade, there will be a fleet of these zeppelins making deliveries to oil rigs in the middle of the ocean and carrying merchandise to big-box retailers.
But selling companies on the idea of packing valuable cargo into a lumbering airship isn't going to be easy, said Jon DeCesare, chief executive of World Class Logistics Consulting Inc., a global supply chain advisory service in Long Beach.
"Shippers are risk-averse," he said. "They're not going to be signing up for something like this without seeing a record of reliability first."
Pasternak says his zeppelin would save money for clients — the cost of fuel and maintenance is about one-third that of other aircraft.
"The concept of transporting containers without using the existing transport network that is already congested is obviously very appealing, and such concepts are desperately needed," said Petros Ioannou, director of the USC Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies.
An important issue, though, he said, "is safety and perception of safety by people when the blimp-like Aeroscraft is flying over them" with a heavy load.
The prototype in Tustin will lift just 2,000 pounds in test flight, but ultimately the company will build a larger Aeroscraft with the capacity to carry 66 tons of cargo.
Pasternak knows there's a long way to go but is confident that the Aeroscraft will be a success.
"I've been waiting for this moment all 49 years of my life," he said.
When flights begin, a crew will test the aircraft's new technology, particularly during takeoffs and landings.
The maiden flight will be the biggest event in company history, and most of the company's employees are expected to gather on the tarmac to celebrate.
When the Aeroscraft returns, Pasternak plans to hand out victory cigars.
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