_June 2010 _ THE THREE ROOMS THAT constitute the offices of the Aereon Corp. are tucked away on the second floor of a brick building near the Princeton University campus. The narrow hallway is lined with gray doors, many of which have hand-lettered business signs on them. You have to know the Aereon offices are there to find them. The furniture inside harks back to the post-war era, with heavy, gray metal desks, tables and filing cabinets. Stacks of papers and proposals crowd various surfaces throughout the rooms. It is a very far cry from the shiny headquarters offices of Boeing or Lockheed-Martin.
This tiny little company has, arguably, the longest lineage of any firm in aviation — a lineage that dates all the way back to 1863. That’s the year that an inventor named Solomon Andrews — a versatile and visionary man who also invented the combination lock — built and flew a triple-hulled, gravity-powered airship he called the Aereon. Andrews envisioned building the airships for the Union Army as surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles. He might even have succeeded, except then Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and the Civil War ended. And without the exigencies of a war, interest in Andrews’ invention faded. He tried to generate interest in a civilian version and even flew a single-hull airship from lower Manhattan up to Brookville, Long Island, one time, but he never got the funding he needed to do anything more with the idea.
The Aereon Corp. of today is not the actual company that Andrews started, but its history has followed a discouragingly similar path. Fifty years ago, a minister named Monroe Drew came across Andrews’ work and decided to try to make another go of the idea. He founded a new company called Aereon and started selling the idea of a large, hybrid airship (part airship, part airplane) for missionary cargo hauling in remote areas.
Unfortunately, the ungainly, triple-hulled craft that Drew and his crew built as a test vehicle rolled over in wind on an early taxi test, and the company became embroiled in charges of misleading investors. Enter William Miller.
William Miller was born in Iran, to Presbyterian missionary parents, and flew as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II before getting his degree at Princeton. A deeply religious man, Miller was finishing a master’s degree at Princeton Seminary when he saw a drawing of Drew’s airship on his stockbroker’s desk one day. Intrigued with its potential for missionary work, Miller went to check out the Aereon project. He invested some funds, joined the board of directors and, when the company ran into serious trouble, ended up taking on the role of president in the hope of straightening out the mess.
Miller enlisted the help of some Princeton engineers and model builders and paid for time on a mainframe computer to crunch the numbers and come up with the optimal design shape for a hybrid cargo airship. The answer the computer came up with was a strange, deltoid lifting-body design that New Yorker writer John McPhee dubbed “The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.”
In a book by the same title, McPhee chronicled Miller’s efforts to build and flight-test both remote control models of the design and a larger, piloted prototype called the Aereon 26. The Aereon 26 test pilot was a young hired gun by the name of John “Jack” Olcott — who would later become the president of the National Business Aviation Association.
By the time Miller took over Aereon, its previous trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission precluded any further stock sales. So Miller ended up using a lot of his own money to build the Aereon 26 and keep the company alive, hoping that additional development funds or contracts would follow if the prototype proved successful.
The Aereon 26 prototype had a successful flight test — but development contracts failed to follow. A few months ago, the Army put out a request for proposal for a hybrid airship to serve as a long-endurance surveillance platform for combating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. But in 1971, the idea of a hybrid airship was just too far ahead, or out, of its time. The dirigible age was over; the jet age was in full swing.
After several years without funding, most people would have given up. But William Miller is not most people. The Aereon Corp. and its work had become more than just a job. It was a mission. Miller believed in the company’s technology and vision and how it could impact the world. He also felt a profound responsibility to all the people who’d invested in the company. So he kept plugging.
“I was trained as a naval officer,” he explains, “and an officer has a responsibility to bear on behalf of those serving under you. You don’t turn around and run when the going gets rough, if you commit to risk your life for your country. And a captain doesn’t abandon ship when there are still people on it.”
For the first 17 years, Miller didn’t take a salary. At least three other times, he’s taken accrued back pay in stock instead of cash. He never married, and he’s spent the past 40 years living frugally to eke out a living on his intermittent company paychecks, savings and investments he made earlier in his life.
At the same time, he’s fought a relentless battle to get traction for the company’s ideas. When he couldn’t get support for a hybrid airship, he worked on making the delta-shaped Aereon (sans helium) a kind of flying camper for general aviation. But Miller decided that the GA market was too volatile and subject to swings in the economy.
He began looking at a bigger model for the regional airline industry. But while many potential customers said they’d buy the aircraft if it were available, nobody had the funds to cover developing it. So Miller turned his focus to military applications that might generate those development funds.
He patented a semibuoyant Dynairship for cargo use and a nonbuoyant wide-aperture surveillance platform (WASP) model that used the deltoid shape as a three-sided radar platform. In the late 1990s, Aereon began working on a WASP UAV model that could operate remotely. The company also got research funding for a DynASTOL UAV that could operate from very short deck areas on Navy ships, and it patented a unique, buoyant vector-rotor design that could be used for carrying heavy sling loads in remote areas.
Over the years, just enough small research contracts have come in to keep the company, and the hope for its eventual stability and success, alive — if sometimes on life support. And several times, it’s looked as if big contracts were about to follow. But politics, changes in program management within the military and the sheer difficulty of introducing radically new technology ideas have combined to keep the company from getting those bigger contracts that might prove, once and for all, whether or not the company’s ideas would work.
Yet, at the age of 83, Miller keeps fighting. He’s part of a research consortium with the University of Maryland that’s applying for funds for a WASP/DynASTOL development program. He’s also looking for a home (and philanthropic support) for the original Aereon 26, which still sits quietly in a New Jersey hangar.
To many, William Miller would seem to have crossed a line — perhaps long ago — from rational dedication to irrational obsession. But where is that line? And how do we determine it? When I asked him why he continued, against all odds and obstacles, his answer wasn’t simple.
“I really believe in the technological vision of what we’ve invented, and I want to see the fulfillment of the company’s potential,” he said. “The inability to get traction does not negate the worth of the concept that’s motivating you to try to get the traction.”
But the commitment goes far deeper than that. Miller characterizes Aereon as a “school of prayer” for himself.
“Our culture is so geared for short-term reward,” he says. “It gears people to payoffs that are in their tenure. Tenacity does not get rewarded. But that’s directly opposite to Aereon’s nature. Aircraft have a gestation and birth cycle that’s long, and it has to be sustained in spite of the impatience of everyone else.”
Miller sighs. “I’ve been very discouraged at many times,” he admits. “Bringing something new to birth is a noble thing, and it deserves honorable support, but it is a very difficult thing. My goal is” — he pauses — “to be faithful to the effort, and to the responsibility and trust others have placed in me.”
Even after eight hours of conversation, I found myself unable to decide on which side of the line Bill Miller stood. I also found myself wondering where visionaries and true believers like Miller come from. Does every field have its Lilienthals, Chanutes, Molt Taylors and Bill Millers? Somewhere out there, were there inventors trying crazy-sounding schemes to build new or better railroad engines, beer breweries, apartment buildings or waste treatment plants? Or does aviation have more than its share of bold and passionate inventors and experimenters?
I don’t know. But I think we’re lucky to have them among us. And as I left Aereon’s offices and stepped out into a cold and snowy night, I couldn’t help thinking that if all CEOs had Miller’s sense of long-term responsibility and commitment, the world would be a better place.