by Alain Gayot
We have flamboyant aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont to thank for conceiving, building and flying the first dirigible around the Paris skyline in 1901. The Brazilian-born aviator demonstrated that sustained and controlled flight was possible. Conceptually, there is little difference between his ingenious machines then and the blimps today, which only a happy few fly. Another famous and flamboyant aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes, gave a Zeppelin (rigid structure dirigible) a starring role in his notorious 1930 movie Hell’s Angels. Then in 1937, there was the devastating explosion of the LZ 129 Hindenburg over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Goodyear built no less than 150 airships for the U.S. Navy during World War II, after which these lighter-than-air ships headed for near extinction.
Charles Goodyear secured a patent in 1844 for vulcanized rubber, and Frank Seiberling later memorialized Goodyear’s name when he founded his tire company in 1898. Ever since 1925, the company has stayed the course on flying blimps. For the world’s leading tire manufacturer, the blimp program is ultimately a marketing expense. Whether you call them Aerial Ambassadors, goodwill machines or whales of the sky, blimps are here to stay.
Today, you can count all the world’s flying blimps on your fingers! Since there are so few, getting up in the sky in one of Alberto’s inventions is a unique experience. Even billionaire Warren Buffett could not simply buy a ride — it has no price. Sure, villain Max Zorin had an airship in the 1985 James Bond film, "A View to a Kill," but that’s only a movie and it ends on a tragic note over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The only way on board is by securing an invitation. Ronald Reagan had to get one, as did fellow actors Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford, and so did we.
Our smooth flight over Southern California was truly an exceptional experience. In about an hour, we time-traveled over the base in Carson (near Los Angeles) to Long Beach, where we hovered over the Queen Mary, a World War II-era Russian submarine and modern luxury cruise ships. Then we glided towards the Palos Verdes Peninsula to watch golfers practice their game next to a developing mega resort. We shared the skies with a vintage B-29 Superfortress and even witnessed a sea rescue by a Sikorsky Los Angeles County Fire helicopter. We saw our giant shadow on the Pacific Ocean (the blimp is only a few feet shorter than a Boeing 747). Our panoramic views included countless pools, coastline mansions, industrial plants, refineries and a marina. We asked our trusty pilot Jon Conrad if he thought he’d ever get bored with his job.
“I don’t think this will happen, at least not for another 30 years,” he remarked. “We meet very interesting people and each flight is different. It took me six weeks to learn how to fly a helicopter, but I dedicated six months to get certified in the airship. This is my career.”
Indeed, a pilot entering the Goodyear flight operations will make it a career since there are only 13 dirigibles flying around the planet. There are less than 40 pilots, and we had the opportunity to meet one of the very few female aviators.
A very limited number of passengers will ride on a Goodyear blimp in a given year. Typically, they are major customers or members of charities or the media. Video transmission of a sporting event from the blimp is provided without charge to television networks in exchange for a mandatory mention during the broadcast. You may also read public service announcements displayed with LEDs on the creature’s side.
The gondola accommodates only six passengers, including the skillful pilot. While a passenger flight lasts about an hour, the craft can remain airborne for two full revolutions of the clock. Stepping onto the ship is a balancing exercise, and a crew of 16 is required to achieve a beautifully choreographed launch or landing, which is even trickier. Blimp pilots are devilishly scared of sharp objects, for obvious reasons. The seemingly slow-moving machine is anything but slow on its rocket-like take-off. Once airborne, however, the view is spectacular and the 30 mph cruise speed allows plenty of time to enjoy the sights.
The average life cycle of a blimp is 12 years. After that time, the neoprene-impregnated polyester fabric that holds the lighter-than-air helium gas is retired, and a new airship and name are born. Goodyear operates from three bases in the United States, each with its own airship: Carson, California’s Spirit of America; Pompano Beach, Florida’s Spirit of Innovation and Akron, Ohio’s new Wingfoot One (located near the company’s headquarters). At the base in Carson, located right next to the 405 freeway, millions of drivers see the base’s huge Goodyear sign, and will often see the awesome airship attached to its mooring mast. For a few drivers with lucky timing, they will even be able to see an actual take-off or landing.
From this ultimate observation deck, you’ll get NASCAR coverage thanks to the blimp’s elite camera operators, along with an assortment of hundreds of other televised events each year from the Academy Awards to the Olympic games. All of this will possibly lead you to pick up a new set of Goodyear Eagle performance tires!
In 2014, Goodyear announced that they would be retiring their aging fleet of GZ-20 model blimps with all-new semi-rigid Zeppelin airships. Wingfoot One was the first airship to emerge from Goodyear's historic hangar in Akron, Ohio in 2015. The LZ N07-101 model is 246-feet long, can reach a top speed of 73 mph and requires far fewer ground crew. Soon the remaining non-rigid helium-filled blimps with be gone from the Goodyear family.
To learn more, visit the Goodyear Blimp official website.