Share story

TUSTIN, Calif. — Not long after arriving in Southern California — far from his native Ukraine — Igor Pasternak walked into an office building wearing a cheap pinstripe suit, an interpreter in tow. He wanted to fly a small blimp he was building but needed approval from the U.S. government.

Federal Aviation Administration engineer Maureen Moreland was dubious when the cigar-chomping, wild-haired Pasternak came to her desk. There weren’t many airship-makers in this country, and she wondered whether he was for real.

He had set up his Worldwide Aeros at a former porn studio. He had only six employees, half of them family members.

“I didn’t believe there was any chance he would make it through the certification process,” said Moreland, who reviewed his application.

A few years later, in 2000, Pasternak’s intricate engineering work passed muster, and he got permission to take the blimp airborne.

He eventually turned to a more ambitious feat: a massive cargo-carrying zeppelin that can take off and land with the precision of a helicopter. His Aeroscraft project was funded in part by the Pentagon, which saw it as a way to move supplies to remote battlefields.

This past week the experimental airship briefly rose into the skies above Tustin, but shifting winds kept it from making its first untethered flight. In the coming days, Pasternak will strap himself into a seat next to the pilot in the zeppelin’s glass cockpit for that maiden flight. His odyssey, which began during the Cold War, is about to reach a milestone few could have foreseen.

People have been wary of airships since 1937, when the giant Hindenburg burst into flames in front of news cameras, killing 35 people. The explosion of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin deflated the chances of lighter-than-air ships ever becoming a popular mode of travel. (A zeppelin is basically a blimp but with a rigid skeleton.)

With the Aeroscraft, Pasternak may realize his goal to erase the long-standing stigma. His life’s work comes in the shape of a silver balloon nearly the size of a football field.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Just wait until you see it fly.”

Pasternak, 49, was born in what is now Kazakhstan, and grew up in Lviv, a Ukrainian city of 700,000 near the Polish border in the former Soviet Union.

As a child, he became enamored with blimps. He earned a degree in civil engineering like his father, and worked for a Ukrainian university that designed a giant airship for the logging industry, but it was never built.

Faced discrimination

As a Jew, Pasternak said, he faced discrimination and had a limited future working in the Soviet Union’s state-run aviation industry.

When then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev initiated perestroika reforms in 1986 that allowed free enterprise, Pasternak formed his own company.

With a small crew, he worked on the production of airships for use by advertisers and scientists.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and Pasternak’s investment capital dried up. In 1993, he fled Russia and emigrated to the U.S. to start a blimp-making company.

In 2005, Pasternak’s company was one of two to land a $3 million contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to do preliminary design work on a cargo-carrying airship.

The other company? The world’s largest military contractor, Lockheed Martin.

Although Lockheed’s design is a work in progress, Aeros went on to win an additional $50 million in funding from the Pentagon and NASA. The money enabled the company to grow to more than 100 employees.

“No one believed Igor could do what he did,” said Tony Tether, retired DARPA director. “It could fundamentally change the way airships operate.”

Commercial market

As the wars in the Middle East have waned, the chances of the Pentagon deploying an Aeroscraft any time soon are slim. Pasternak is now more focused on the commercial market.

He predicts that within a decade, there will be a fleet of these zeppelins making deliveries to oil rigs in the middle of the ocean and carrying merchandise to big-box retailers.

But selling companies on the idea of packing valuable cargo into a lumbering airship isn’t going to be easy, said Jon DeCesare, chief executive of World Class Logistics Consulting, a global supply chain advisory service in Long Beach, Calif.

“Shippers are risk-averse,” he said. “They’re not going to be signing up for something like this without seeing a record of reliability first.”

Pasternak says his zeppelin would save money for clients — the cost of fuel and maintenance is about one-third that of other aircraft.

“The concept of transporting containers without using the existing transport network that is already congested is obviously very appealing, and such concepts are desperately needed,” said Petros Ioannou, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies at the University of Southern California.

An important issue, though, he said, “is safety and perception of safety by people when the blimplike Aeroscraft is flying over them” with a heavy load.

The prototype in Tustin will lift just 2,000 pounds in test flight, but ultimately the company will build a larger Aeroscraft with the capacity to carry 66 tons of cargo.

Pasternak knows there’s a long way to go but is confident that the Aeroscraft will be a success.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment all 49 years of my life,” he said.