Fire rips through site where military airship research being done

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Fire ripped through a former Goodyear blimp hangar Thursday where military research on a prototype surveillance airship was being planned.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries in the fire at the airdock -- which stretches 1,175 feet long or the length of almost four football fields, fire department spokesman Ed Sturkey said.

The airdock is the home of Pentagon-sponsored Lockheed Martin Corp. research on a $149 million prototype of the unmanned airship.

The airdock was being prepared to start building a prototype within one year, said Kate Dunlap, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman. The fire won't delay the schedule, she said.

No cause or damage estimate was available, Dunlap and Sturkey said.

About one dozen crews were fighting the fire at the Akron Fulton Airport. The blaze sent black smoke billowing across the airport.

Damage was limited to one or two layers of the multilayered outer envelope at one end of the airdock, Dunlap said.

Denise Hobart, who runs a pilot school at the airport, said the image of the burning airdock was reminiscent of the German airship Hindenberg, which exploded in a ball of fire in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937.

"It was pretty spectacular in a sense that you had this rush of adrenaline. But then my next thought was the Hindenberg: The rubber actually sizzled like the skin of the Hindenberg and it almost gave you this sadness because you thought of all these people," Hobart said.

Kevin Steiner, who operates an aircraft repair business at the city-owned airport, said the fire would have appeared even bigger except for the enormous size of the hangar.

"It was a large fire. It didn't look extremely large because of the size of the building," he said.

The former home of the Goodyear blimps was sold by the tire maker at least 20 years ago, Goodyear spokesman Keith Price said. The tire maker has a blimp hangar at nearby Wingfoot Lake.

Lockheed Martin, which has about 550 employees in Akron, also makes blimp components that Goodyear assembles.

The prototype will be 400 feet long and 140 feet in diameter. It is intended to stay aloft at an altitude of nearly 12 miles for months in one position while monitoring communications with long-range sensors.

The airdock, where Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. blimps were assembled, is shaped like a flat-bottomed cucumber, was built in 1929 and has doors at the two ends weighing 600 tons each.

Goodyear built blimps for the military at the airdock during World War II and later sold the airdock to defense contractor Loral Corp., which sold it to Lockheed Martin in 1996.

Paul Barnett, whose work as city public works manager includes the airport operations, said no flights were affected.

The Akron-Canton Airport, about 10 miles to the south, was alerted to warn pilots to watch for smoke, Barnett said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)