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Mammoth Experimental Airship Destroyed In Crash; One Dead

July 2, 1986

LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) _ A massive experimental airship built from a blimp and four helicopters crashed after one copter malfunctioned, killing a crewman during a test flight near where the Hindenburg exploded 49 years ago.

Four other crewmen and a firefighter on the ground sustained only cuts and bruises when the 343-foot-long, 10-story Heli-Stat crashed Tuesday night at the U.S. Naval Air Engineering Station, authorities said.

The craft, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, was designed for logging remote areas with a minimum of environmental damage. But some federal agencies criticized it for structural problems and for running behind schedule at a cost of $34 million, more than three times the original projection of $10.7 million.

The Heli-Stat, which had never flown horizontally, was hovering at about 40 feet when one of the four helicopters malfunctioned and lost power, said Nick Grand, a U.S. Naval Air Engineering Center spokesman.

A fire caused by ruptured fuel tanks in the Heli-Stat’s helicopters was quickly extinguished, but the airship was destroyed, Grand said.

″It looked like it just tilted and caught on fire,″ said Mike DeStanko, a civilian employee.

The Heli-Stat ″just burst right in the air,″ said Petty Officer Chuck Peterson. ″I couldn’t believe it. Flames flew.″

Gary Oleshfski, of Bordentown, who was alone in one of the helicopters, was killed in the crash, Grand said. Tuesday was Oleshfski’s 39th birthday.

The craft crashed about three-quarters of a mile from where the German dirigible Hindenburg blew up in May 1937, killing 36 people, he said.

The craft was comprised of four tailless helicopters mounted on an aluminum frame that supported the blimp. The pilot, who survived, sits in the left rear copter and flight engineers in the other three.

Unlike the Hindenburg, which was filled with highly explosive hydrogen, the Heli-Stat’s blimp was filled with helium, a non-explosive gas.

The craft, which was 43 feet longer than a football field, was designed by Frank N. Piasecki, a helicopter pioneer who began its assembly in 1979 under a Forest Service contract.

The Navy was monitoring the experiment by the Piasecki Aircraft Corp. of Sharon Hill, Pa., Grand said.

The airship, estimated by Piasecki last year to cost $24 million in federal funds and $10 million in private investment, was designed to lift 24 tons. It was based on the principle that once filled with helium, its resultant buoyancy made the craft almost weightless, so that the thrust generated by the copters’ combined 6,100 horsepower could be directed toward lifting the timber.

Grand said he believed Piasecki achieved his first untethered flight in May.

Piasecki said last year the Heli-Stat might reach 72 mph, but conceded it could crash relatively easily if caught in a storm at low altitude.

Forest Service officials said the Heli-Stat had shown promise for logging because back areas could be reached without having to cut roads. Piasecki also said it might be used to fly oil derricks, pipelines and military equipment to remote areas.

But in 1982, the General Accounting Office, the auditing branch of Congress, called it a white elephant, and said the cost of developing, housing and testing the behemoth would surpass $40 million that would never be recovered.

The GAO also cited problems found by the Navy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the FAA.

″Engineering analyses requested to ensure the strength of the structure have been incomplete and flawed,″ the GAO said, and ″poor quality workmanship practices have been used to build the interconnecting structure.″

Piasecki said last year that the Heli-Stat ″uses very good, old-fashioned technology and plain engineering to do a better job at a lower cost.″

″People laughed at Henry Ford, too,″ he said in 1982. Grand said Piasecki was at the center, but he didn’t know his whereabouts after the crash.

Grand said the Federal Aviation Administration had been informed of the accident and he doubted the Navy would become involved in any investigation because it was a civilian project.

The Heli-Stat’s main Dacron bag held a million cubic feet of helium and had four Navy surplus H-34 helicopters, built by Sikorski Aircraft-Division of United Technologies Corp.

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