TUSTIN, Calif. - Aviation is going places the Wright Brothers never dreamed. The future of flying exists in a prototype that measures about 270-feet long and weighs 36,000 pounds, and it doesn't even need a runway.
Like a helicopter, this aircraft can take off vertically and unload its cargo while it still hovers over the ground.
The ship's skin is made out of high-tech Mylar, which covers a carbon-fiber structure that houses helium-filled balloons. Since the helium is lighter than the air, Worldwide Aeros Mechanical Engineer Tim Kenny says the airship must take on more air to sink and land.
"It allows the vehicle to be heavier and set down on the ground," Kenny said. "When we want to become lighter than air, we release that air, and the vehicle floats and we can allow to take off."
Kenny says the vertical takeoff would allow the vehicle to help with humanitarian efforts by reaching places that would be unsafe to land otherwise.
"You could take this vehicle and go to destinations that have been destroyed, where there's no ports, runways, stuff like that," Kenny said. "This vehicle could go in there, offload the cargo even if there's no infrastructure, no landing site for it to land on, this vehicle can unload its whole payload.
The full-scale version could carry up to 66 tons of cargo, Kenny says. The Pentagon and NASA have invested $35 million in the prototype's construction. Flight control engineer Munir Jojo-Verge says he will never forget the first test flight inside the hangar.
"It was an incredible exciting day," Jojo-Verge said. "For me, I realized that I put a little dot in the line of aviation history. A little dot for something that has never been demonstrated before, now it's feasible."
The team has plans to test the airship outside the hangar soon, as they continue to improve the airship and build the next prototype, which will be twice as big.
Rose Heaphy contributed to this article.