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 Corp. 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.
In the coming days, Pasternak will strap himself into a seat next to the pilot in the zeppelin's glass cockpit when it makes its maiden flight above TustinPeople have been wary of airships since 1937, when the giant Hindenburg burst into flames in front of news cameras, killing 35 people.
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."
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 Corp.
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."
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 Inc., 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 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.