Pathfinder 1, World's Largest Aircraft, Takes to Skies in Bay Area with Eco-friendly Vision

Pathfinder 1, World's Largest Aircraft, Takes to Skies in Bay Area with Eco-friendly VisionSource: Google Street View
Tony Ng
Published on November 17, 2023

The skies of the Bay Area are now playing host to the Pathfinder 1, a colossal experimental airship launched by LTA Research. This project, led by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, proposes a future of environmentally friendly aviation and humanitarian pursuits. TechCrunch details the decade-long progress of the initiative, closely supervised by regulatory bodies.

At 124.5 meters long, the Pathfinder 1 exceeds current Goodyear ships and the Stratolaunch aircraft, becoming the largest plane to fly in the skies since the 1930s Hindenburg airship. SFGATE reports the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently endorsed testing the airship. This helium-filled and electric-powered craft is hosted at Moffett Field, a communal civil-military airport at the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Despite sharing a visual similarity to the Hindenburg, the Pathfinder 1 boasts several updates in technology and materials. It has a titanium frame and a Kevlar nose cone, designed to withstand winds up to 80 mph. It features fly-by-wire controls, electric motors, and Lidar sensing on a grander scale than current drone technology. To TechCrunch, LTA's CEO Alan Weston revealed his enthusiasm about this starting point for future airship developments, ushering in a new industry era.

The Pathfinder 1 emphasizes safety by substituting volatile hydrogen with more stable helium as the lifting gas, held in 13 giant rip-stop nylon cells. It features a rigid structure of 10,000 carbon-fiber tubes, enhancing the gas cells, as rigorously observed by Lidar laser systems. Diesel generators and batteries power the airship's electric motors, allowing vertical take-off and landing and reaching peak speeds of up to 65 knots (75 mph).

To test the Pathfinder 1, the FAA permitted a suite of test flights, initiating at Moffett Field and stretching over San Francisco Bay's southern region. These tests are designed to directly evaluate how the aircraft's materials will bear real-world conditions. As Jillian Hilenski, Senior Mechanical Engineer at LTA, has explained, on-board dynamic flight tests present the most accurate method for gathering data regarding the functionality and efficiency of the aircraft.

Its potential for fostering eco-friendly air travel aside, the Pathfinder 1 is also slated to play a significant role in disaster relief operations. Brin has previously supported Global Support and Development, an NPO centered on delivering aid within 24 to 96 hours post-natural disaster. Though the Pathfinder 1 can currently only hold up to four tons of cargo, LTA aims to develop bigger aircraft to further support the humanitarian sector.

The Pathfinder 1's inaugural test flights mark a significant step in aviation technology. The FAA's experimental certification for the airship expires in September 2024, marking a decade of committed research and testing. Provided it's successful, the Pathfinder 1 could potentially transform the aviation industry, contributing significantly to global relief efforts.