March 30, 2011
Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) has a problem. Its primary customer, the U.S. Defense Department, is cutting budgets and pinching pennies on contracts such as the Littoral Combat Ship and F-35 fighter jet. Efforts to diversify revenues don't always work out, such as when Lockheed lost a contract to build P-791 "spy blimps" for the Army to Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) last year.
Lockheed's solution: Diversify even further. After losing the P-791 contract, engineers at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works development bureau hit upon a novel idea. Why not "demilitarize" the airship and sell it to commercial customers?
Last week, Canada's Aviation Capital Enterprises inked a contract to buy a rebranded P-791 "SkyTug" to perform cargo lift. The first SkyTug will be capable of carrying 20 tons of cargo, moving at speeds of perhaps 100 knots (For reference, that's about half the cargo capacity of a Boeing (NYSE: BA ) 737, and one-fifth the airspeed.) If the first blimp works out, though, it's theoretically possible to scale up to versions hauling 600 tons of cargo -- three times the capacity of a Boeing 777.
Granted, at 100-knot speeds, airships won't win much FedEx business away from Boeing. But I'll bet there are plenty of other customers who could find uses for a heavy cargo hauler. We'll keep an eye on Skunk Works' new project for you, and let you know how it pans out.
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