Lockheed Martin has trucked off its final — pending any new contract awards — Akron-made high profile and high-flying military surveillance blimp.
The 66th “Persistent Threat Detection System” aerostat and related equipment got a celebratory send-off Tuesday afternoon outside the Akron Airdock as they rested on the back of eight tractor trailers in large, desert-colored boxes.
The boxed-in (and uninflated) 115-foot-long, white blimp and equipment is heading to Afghanistan. Each aerostat, when fully inflated with helium, is roughly half the size of a Goodyear blimp.
This was the last of the most recent 29 aerostat systems bought by the U.S. Army as part of a $184.3 million contract awarded last year to Lockheed Martin. That works out to nearly $6.4 million per system, each of which is assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin’s Akron campus, including inside the massive airdock.
The aerostats provide an eye-in-?the-sky to American war fighters.
The tethered blimps float thousands of feet in the air and use cameras and other sensors to look around the surrounding area and relay that information to people on the ground in “real time.” The persistent part of the system’s name comes from the aerostat’s ability to float high above the same spot 24 hours a day for weeks if needed.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, soldiers have loved them. It saves lives. It saves American lives,” said Lt. Col. Michael Parodi, product manager for the U.S. Army’s Meteorological and Target Identification Capabilities unit. “It’s a great product. It’s lived up to its requirements.”
Parodi came to Akron to accept the final aerostat under the 29-unit contract. He has been part of what the Army calls the PTDS system since November, he said.
About 50 people gathered to watch the trucks head out with the equipment.
The aerostat missions started in Iraq in 2004 and then were moved into Afghanistan, Parodi said.
“Today you have seen the delivery of the 29th final system, which is why I am up here, to commemorate the fact we are receiving the last system out of this order,” he said. “They provide information to the operational commander on the ground. The commander uses that information to get better situational awareness of what’s going on on the ground to find, fix, track, target and engage indirect and direct enemy fire. And also provide overwatch of convoys and soldiers while they are performing their missions.”
Military dispatches have said the aerostat systems have allowed U.S. and allied forces to spot and then capture or kill insurgents.
The systems can be assembled, used and taken down fairly quickly, Parodi said.
“They’re mobile. So, once the situation changes, they can be moved someplace else,” he said. “That’s the beauty of these things.”
The aerostats have been delivered on time and on budget, Parodi said. The system will be used in Afghanistan through 2014.
While additional orders for new aerostats are not guaranteed, the program will continue in one form or another, said Colleen Arthur, director of Integrated Defense Technologies and general manager at Lockheed Martin’s Akron campus.
At the very least, Lockheed Martin will continue to provide support, equipment and upgrades for the 66 aerostat systems, she said.
At peak points, as many as 150 people at the Akron campus were involved in the aerostat program, Arthur said. About 700 people work at Lockheed Martin’s Akron facilities.
“Obviously, this has been a huge success for us,” Arthur said.
Seeing the last aerostat leave is a “bittersweet” moment for the Lockheed Martin team but the people in Akron remain proud of what they have done, she said. For many of the Lockheed Martin Akron employees, the aerostats are a labor of love because of the help they provide to the war fighters, she said.
With this last aerostat heading out, no job cuts are anticipated, Arthur said. “Obviously, we have different programs we support at this site, so people will adjust as necessary.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org