Traffic congestion on the 101 highway in Mountain View, California, is expected to escalate in the coming days or weeks, with motorists eager to witness the inaugural flight of Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s colossal airship, Pathfinder 1. IEEE Spectrum has uncovered that LTA Research, the aerospace company established by Brin in 2015, to spearhead the development of airships for humanitarian and cargo transport, received a special airworthiness certificate for this helium-filled behemoth in early September.

This coveted certificate grants Pathfinder 1, the most substantial airship since the Hindenburg, the green light to commence flight tests at Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airport nestled in Silicon Valley. The airship is authorized to conduct test flights within the confines of Moffett Field and the adjacent Palo Alto airport’s airspace, soaring to heights of up to 460 meters (1,500 feet). This provides ample room for it to venture over the southern region of San Francisco Bay without obstructing the flight paths of planes traveling to or from San Jose and San Francisco International commercial airports.

LTA expressed in its application that the primary objective of Pathfinder 1’s experimental flight program is to establish and demonstrate the airship’s flight capabilities. The test regimen devised by LTA encompasses a comprehensive combination of indoor and outdoor ground testing, implementing a gradual build-up approach to expand the flight envelope.

The extensive testing schedule kicks off with the airship attached to a mobile mast for outdoor ground testing, culminating in approximately 25 low-altitude flights amounting to 50 hours of flight time.

Although its structural design harks back to the colossal airships of the early 20th century, Pathfinder 1 boasts pioneering features not found in any large airship before. Notably, it employs helium, a nonflammable lifting gas, rather than the hazardous hydrogen. The airship relies on twelve electric motors positioned on its sides and tail, along with four fin rudders, enabling vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and achieving speeds of approximately 120 kilometers per hour. The exterior features a robust layer of laminated Tedlar material housing 13 helium bags constructed from ripstop nylon. These bags incorporate lidar systems to monitor helium levels meticulously.

Pathfinder 1 incorporates a hybrid propulsion system, where two 150-kilowatt diesel generators collaborate with 24 batteries to supply power for the electric motors. LTA’s CEO, Alan Weston, has disclosed intentions to explore hydrogen utilization in subsequent airship models, potentially as fuel for future fuel cells, turbogenerators, or even as an alternative lifting gas.

LTA has confirmed the issuance of the airworthiness certificate, albeit with limited details provided. Although Pathfinder 1 is designed for single-pilot operation, it includes dual controls, and, according to LTA’s communication with the FAA, a second pilot will be present “for initial flight testing until pilot workload can be assessed.” The gondola used for the airship was designed by the renowned Zeppelin company in Germany and can accommodate up to 14 individuals; however, superfluous passengers will not partake in testing.

Following extensive flight trials in California, Pathfinder 1 will relocate to the former Goodyear Airdock airship hangar in Akron, Ohio, acquired by LTA as its future manufacturing facility. A larger airship, the 180-meter-long Pathfinder 3, is already in the pipeline.

LTA envisions deploying its airships for humanitarian missions, facilitating the transportation of cargo and personnel to areas inaccessible by road. Sergey Brin oversees a separate nonprofit entity named Global Support and Development, which has previously conducted maritime missions in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the South Pacific. The organization leverages Brin’s personal superyacht to transport medical personnel to disaster-stricken areas. Additionally, it recently unveiled the MV Dawn, a purpose-built vessel capable of accommodating medical staff, shipping containers, watercraft, vehicles, and even producing and off-loading bulk water supplies. This represents a blueprint for prospective humanitarian airship deployments.

Pathfinder 1’s airworthiness certificate is valid for a full year, and LTA expects to conclude its test program within 180 days, as conveyed to the FAA in its application letter.

By Impact Lab