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An eye in the sky

From Brian Todd

Wolf Blitzer Reports

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hiding in plain sight is a big, slow-moving target that is also a potentially valuable weapon in the war on terror.

This week, the military will test-fly a 170,000 cubic-foot blimp in the heavily restricted skies above the nation's capital.

"Some of the missions that we're gonna try to do to prove our concept is to work with some of the government facilities in conducting a force-protection mission," says U.S. Navy Commander Mike Giauque.

And by "force-protection," he means surveillance.

Equipped with cameras, monitors, and sophisticated avionics, the airship could be an important prototype.

It may look unwieldy, but experts say the blimp has a big advantage over airplanes and helicopters -- sustainability in the air.

Where planes may fly too fast and helicopters can only stay airborne for a few hours, officials are looking to send this dirigible over Washington, D.C., for at least 24 hours at a time.

Despite its size, the blimp is able to zero-in on vehicles, buildings and bases from miles away and as high as 10,000 feet.

"It gives them a visual eye without having to be right there beside everything," says surveillance technician Phillip Mix.

Right now, the military has so-called aerostats -- tethered, unmanned blimps used for surveillance -- deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those have limited airlift and mobility.

We asked a test pilot about what we saw as an obvious drawback of the huge airship: A laughably easy target for shoulder-fired missiles or machine guns.

"People have this misconception that, you know, you fire a round at it and then it's all going to fall apart ... The envelope can sustain a lot of damage with bullet-holes or whatever, and it still maintains its integrity... Normally we're operating in the environment where we're away from most of the ground, ground-fire," says airship test pilot Carl Daley.

On our own test-flight, we rode through steep climbs and descents, sharp banks handled with surprising agility; witnessed airborne surveillance that looked like it was shot from a movie camera and made a smooth landing in the middle of a cornfield.

Once considered an outdated tool of wars past, the airship may be making a comeback.

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