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Plimp hybrid drone
Egan Airships has tested a drone-sized prototype of its Plimp hybrid airship. (Egan Airships Photo)

What do you get when you cross an airship and an airplane? If you’re willing to spend more than $4 million, you could get the Plimp hybrid aircraft that’s envisioned by Seattle-based Egan Airships.

The patented concept calls for mounting a helium-filled balloon on an airframe that has wings equipped with adjustable propellers. The result is a not-quite-lighter-than-air vehicle that rises like the Goodyear Blimp but can cruise like an airplane at speeds of more than 80 mph.

“This is a brand new approach. As you see it fly, what was not obvious becomes intuitive,” said the company’s co-founder and president, James Egan, a Seattle attorney who was recently in the news in connection with a lawsuit challenging the Seattle City Council’s repeal of a head-tax measure.

After years of work on the design and prototype testing, Egan is trying to drum up enough interest among potential buyers to move ahead with the years-long process of getting the plane built and certified.

It’s an unorthodox sales pitch: If customers are willing to pay $4 million plus overages, in installments spread out over the course of four years, they’ll get a Plimp Model J aircraft that’s capable of carrying either a ton of payload in cargo mode, or two pilots and eight travelers in passenger mode.

The aircraft would get its forward thrust and 40 percent of its lift from an electric-powered propeller system. Even if the propellers go out, the craft’s helium-filled envelope would make for a relatively gentle landing.

Egan envisions the 140-foot-long Model J as a flying machine that could display advertising, provide tours, serve as a platform for aerial photography, or function as an air taxi. Smaller drone-type versions could take on tasks ranging from surveying cellphone towers to patrolling security perimeters.

The contraption may seem a bit Jules Vernesque, but Egan is confident that it’ll fly.

“This is not so complicated as a helicopter,” he said. “You’re just using simple parts and putting them together in a different way. You’re approaching aircraft and flight in a way that’s more akin to a fish in water than it is to an aircraft in the sky.”

So far, Egan Airships has only tested a 28-foot long prototype drone in California. But the Model J concept has earned a thumbs-up from veteran aerospace designer Daniel Raymer as well as consultants at TLG Aerospace in Seattle.

“Engineering-wise, we’re not looking at new technology,” Steve Muenzberg, TLG Aerospace’s president, told GeekWire. “It’s just off-the-shelf technology put together in an innovative way.”

Muenzberg said the concept hasn’t yet been vetted with the Federal Aviation Administration, which would eventually have to certify the hybrid aircraft. But he said there’s precedent for the process that Egan Airships has in mind. “Luckily for us, Lockheed Martin actually paved the way for us,” Muenzberg said.

Five years ago, Lockheed Martin proposed building and certifying an airship with an aerodynamic shape that would provide extra lift. The company worked out a certification process with the FAA that blended the regulations for small airplanes and airships.

Lockheed Martin’s 280-foot-long LMH-1 hybrid airship hasn’t yet hit the market, but the process provided a perfect precedent, Muenzberg said.

“The project goes at the speed of money,” he said. “They’re waiting to sign the customers to sign the checks.”

James Egan
James Egan, co-founder and president of Egan Airships, shows off a model of the Plimp hybrid aircraft at his law office in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Money is the main question for the Plimp project as well. In order to move ahead with Model J development, Egan is looking for as many as 20 to 30 pre-orders within the next three to six months.

“We’ve got effectively a Kickstarter,” he said. Interested parties are being asked to pay a $1,000 vetting fee and show $10 million in liquid assets.

If the money comes through, where would the Model J be built? “We have leads,” Egan said. “The way it works, money talks. We have no problem finding a lot of connections in the area.”

John Italiane, director of business development for Egan Airships, said the company has talked with “several aerospace companies in the Seattle area that are interested in participating.” He stopped short of naming names, however.

Egan hasn’t solicited outside investment in his airship venture. He’s not averse to the idea, but so far, he’s been self-funding the Plimp project.

“This kind of a project, for me, over six years, would be somewhere around a million dollars,” Egan said. “I put my money where my mouth is on this project, which is how people can be confident that I’m going to deliver. I’ve been dreaming about this, actively, for the past six years.”

And the dreams don’t stop with the Plimp project. Egan is already talking about creating a 19-passenger “flying bus.”

“The well-heeled could get to a Microsoft meeting in about 10 minutes, landing off second base on any ballfield of the middle of a soccer field,” he said in a follow-up email. “This is the 10-year plan, to put out a reliable air system so anyone can book these local ultra flights on their phones.”

Not all dreams end up taking flight, but the next few months should reveal whether or not Egan’s vision achieves liftoff.

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