1944 alumna joins dedication ceremony for UD airship
An overhead view of the University of Delaware's new airship.
The new airship, tethered in the open space adjacent to the Roselle Center for the Arts.
Rachel Jewett Ledbetter christens the new UD airship. Note the wording on the gondola, with the airship dedicated to the memory of her grandfather, Thomas Tustin Cloward. Looking on are UD President Patrick Harker, left, and professors Jack Puleo and Michael O'Neal.
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4:21 p.m., May 12, 2009----More than 75 members of the University of Delaware community cheered as alumna Rachel Jewett Ledbetter, '44AS, broke a bottle of faux champagne over the gondola of UD's new non-rigid airship at a dedication ceremony May 12.

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“I wish those who work with it great success and satisfaction with the studies that evolve, and I hope it measures up to your expectations,” she said.

Ledbetter donated the funds for the University to purchase the 60-foot long, remote-controlled airship, which will be used as an environmental research and monitoring platform.

The dirigible is dedicated to the memory of Ledbetter's grandfather, Thomas Tustin Cloward, who enabled her to attend the University while her family lived in Honduras. His initials appear in blue on the vehicle's gondola.

In opening the dedication ceremony, University President Patrick Harker said, “We are clearly indebted to Michael O'Neal, assistant professor of geography, and Jack Puleo, assistant professor of civil engineering, the two lead faculty on this project. This was their dream, their labor of love, and now their reality.”

“This airship is an exciting addition to a series of instruments and innovations that further UD's reputation as a bold leader in environmental research, technology, and education,” he continued. “I look forward to its upcoming missions and the data it will bring back -- data that will improve our environmental science and, ultimately, our environmental policy.”

Harker thanked not only O'Neal and Puleo for their vision and Ledbetter for her generosity, but also the deans of the four colleges involved -- Tom Apple, Arts and Sciences; Nancy Targett, Marine and Earth Studies; Michael Chajes, Engineering; and Robin Morgan, Agriculture and Natural Resources. The colleges have provided funds for accessories, including the trailer used to transport the blimp when it is deflated.

"A hallmark of environmental research and education is the breadth and complexity of the types of questions that it addresses," Targett said. "Environmental research is inherently multidisciplinary, and therefore it draws together scientists, engineers, and policy analysts to address the complex issues that transcend traditional disciplinary lines."

“The UD airship joins a fleet of innovative vehicles and instruments that contribute to our environmental research,” she continued, “and can be found in units across the campus -- the fuel-cell powered bus, innovative solar panel designs, the V2G-enabled electric car, the new agricultural research combine, our state-of-the-art research vessel, underwater gliders, and fixed buoys -- the list goes on and on. With the airship joining that list, UD has a presence not only on land and at sea, but in the air as well.”

O'Neal, who had the original vision for the airship as a cost-effective way to gather data about the Earth, said that it has already been used by the Delaware Geological Survey (DGS) to observe the influence of changes in the estuarine environment due to the mixing of saline and freshwater.

“Every week, someone at UD comes up with a new idea for how to use the airship,” he said, “and we couldn't be happier. We didn't get it to use for ourselves -- we got it to use for the University. The data collected by DGS has already been brought into the classroom, where students are benefiting from it.”

The airship's interchangeable payload design enables it to be equipped with a variety of imaging instrumentation, including a laser scanner and visible, ultraviolet, and infrared cameras.

Depending on the instrumentation used, researchers will be able to capture data and analyze land-use and land-cover change, geomorphology, climate variability, coastal processes, landfill chemistry, and various other environmental phenomena.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photos by Evan Krape

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