One giant icon

Flying a piece of aviation history

May 1, 2009

Is there a more iconic corporate symbol than the Goodyear blimp? Company research shows that whenever the word “blimp” is used, most every American thinks “Goodyear.” Such name recognition and association doesn’t occur without a major investment in time and money, and Goodyear has made both over the past 84 years to support commercial blimp operations. However, the company’s contributions to aviation go back even further.

When the Wright brothers sold their first airplane to the military in 1909, it carried Goodyear Aeronautics’ first aviation product, the Goodyear Wing Aeroplane Tire—the first tire built specifically for aviation use. Until the introduction of the Flyer with the Goodyear tire, the Wrights had stuck with the by then tried-and-true skid landing gear of the original 1903 Flyer. Other aviation pioneers had experimented with everything from bicycle tires to motorcycle and car tires, but weight and durability doomed those selections. The Wing tire soon became the standard at such early aviation companies as Wright, Curtiss, Martin, and Blériot. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, formed in 1898, was more than a decade old when it launched its aeronautics operations in 1909. Now, 100 years later, Goodyear’s “aeronautics” contributions span the fleet, from Flight Custom III tires for light single-engine airplanes to tires for the largest airliners and fastest military fighters. Even the equipment carts used on the moon by the Apollo astronauts rode on specially made Goodyear tires that weighed just four pounds apiece.

Huge advances in tire technology occurred because of Goodyear’s ability to innovate around materials. In the early years of motorized transportation, advances in materials drove dramatic improvements in tire reliability on practically a yearly basis. During World War I and World War II, Goodyear leveraged its knowledge of rubber and associated materials to improve fabric for all sorts of uses, including airplane coverings, balloons, life vests, rubber boats for troop landings, and even an inflatable airplane that was intended to be parachuted in a crate to pilots downed behind enemy lines. The pilots would inflate the airplane and fly out—a clever idea that was never deployed.

Of course, in aviation, appropriate materials are crucial—whether they’re for structural use or covering of surfaces. Goodyear’s early work on rigid airships contributed to the understanding of lightweight aluminum structures that the company leveraged into knowledge to build more than 4,000 Corsairs near its Akron, Ohio, headquarters during World War II. It even developed its own amphibious airplane, the Drake, but it was not put into production.

Goodyear’s understanding of fabrics brought it huge market share in aircraft coverings and led to the development of its first airship envelope in 1911; the blimp was destroyed in an explosion. Not dissuaded, the company continued airship progress, partnering with the German company Zeppelin in 1924 to create the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company, which launched development of huge dirigibles. Goodyear built a 200-foot airship hangar at its Wingfoot Lake facility near Akron in 1917. It added 200 more feet in 1925 and 400 more feet in 1940. The 800-foot facility today is home to Goodyear worldwide blimp operations. Across town at Akron-Fulton Airport stands the enormous Airdock. Started in 1928, the building is 1,175 feet long, 325 feet wide, and 211 feet high. It was the largest freestanding structure of its day and considered an engineering marvel.

Goodyear spun off the building and related facilities at the airport during a hostile takeover bid in the mid-1980s. Today Lockheed Martin owns those parts of the business. It was there that such behemoths as the airships USS Akron and USS Macon were built in the early 1930s. The 785-foot ships carried a crew of 76 and as many as 111 passengers and were designed for coastal patrols and as aircraft carriers. Both ultimately crashed.

Given the role that hot air balloons played in surveillance during the Civil War, many thought of lighter-than-air craft as military machines, but Goodyear saw commercial opportunities from the beginning. Early hydrogen-filled blimps, named pony for their small size, were used for advertising messages as early as 1919. When one caught fire and crashed into a bank building, the company began looking in earnest at alternatives. The result was the first helium-filled commercial blimp, the Pilgrim, launched in 1925. For a number of years, Goodyear sold advertising space on the blimps to other companies, but ultimately reserved the giant billboards for its own messages.

Classically modern

Today’s Model GZ-20 blimps have their roots in World War II airships used for submarine spotting off the coasts, but with thoroughly modern neoprene-impregnated polyester envelopes (2,400 square yards each) and such modern marvels as datalink weather; traffic alerting; color weather radar; IFR-approved GPS; and, when needed, high-definition, gyrostablized television cameras with microwave feeds hanging out the left side. Where simple eight-letter words (Goodyear—eight letters) once were spelled out by heavy, power-hungry white neon or incandescent lights on the sides of the blimps (as early as the 1930s), today 83,000 lightweight, low-power LEDs adorn the left side of the blimps, spelling any imaginable animated message in 33,000 colors, all managed from a laptop computer and monitor on board.

Marty Chandler, chief pilot at Goodyear’s Pompano Beach, Florida, blimp port, steps through a narrow door in the aft cabin of The Spirit of Innovation to show me N2A’s mil-spec heritage. Beefy battleship gray structure supports the twin Continental IO-360 engines hanging on each side of the six-seat cabin. I climb up a small ladder to stick my head into a glass dome that protrudes up into the envelope. With a flashlight I can see the forward and aft ballonets—basically bags within the helium-filled envelope that can be inflated with outside air to balance the pressure of the helium during climbs and descents and changes in ambient temperature. It’s dark in there—a good thing. Any light would suggest holes in the envelope with helium leaking out.

Innovation is one of three Goodyear blimps operating in the United States; a fourth plies the skies over China. They are all essentially identical, differing only in the avionics and instrumentation. Innovation is the “newest.” The car—the passenger compartment below blimp—is actually refurbished, but with the panel modernized when a new envelope was put on it in 2006. Goodyear builds all of its own blimps, reusing the cars and replacing the envelopes about every dozen years or so. Spirit of America operates out of a base near Los Angeles, and Spirit of Goodyear calls the original hangar at Wingfoot Lake home. While America lives outside, Innovation resides in modern 276-foot long, 170-foot wide, and 100-foot high hangar on the Pompano Beach Airport. Protecting the envelopes from continuous sunlight and rain adds years to their lives.

The blimps are 192 feet long and 60 feet tall with envelopes that contain about 200,000 cubic feet, about 90 percent of it helium. The ships are equipped and certified for IFR flight, and the crews will occasionally fly them IFR when moving between events. The primary mission is visibility for Goodyear, so flying in instrument conditions doesn’t help that cause. The fleet flies some 6,000 passengers annually—mostly Goodyear customers and in support of charities. It once offered walk-up rides for hire, but that practice was stopped decades ago because of the limited number of seats available compared to the overwhelming demand. Goodyear’s marketing staff can quote the number of impressions and impact on sales to a couple of decimal points if you ask how the company justifies the expense of three blimps and about 80 people across three locations and thousands of travel nights a year. It takes about 20 people to support each blimp, including three to four pilots.

Each ground crewmember has multiple jobs—handling ropes to wrestle the lumbering ships on and off mooring masts during blimp operations and otherwise doing maintenance. When the ships are on the road, they are followed by a bus full of personnel and gear; a tractor-trailer touting the collapsible mooring mast, fuel, and a plethora of parts; two vans—one pulling a trailer hauling the TV gear. In addition to the collapsible mast, an emergency mast can be extended from the bus roof. For without a mast and ground crew, the ship can’t be landed.

For hangar operations, two ancient yellow purpose-built “mules” help guide the tail of these giant weather vanes as they are moved in and out. The 17,000-pound mules with four-wheel steering—looking like overgrown Jeeps—keep the ships in check; but even at those weights, a 30-knot crosswind while coming or going from the hangar can tip the mules up on two wheels. The ships are backed into the hangars, propelled by an impressively large mast structure just for hangar operations that is pushed and pulled by a tractor—the mules keeping cables taut at the aft end. Watching a takeoff or landing and the hangaring of a blimp is like watching a ballet—hand signals from the crew chief manage the affair much like a director guides an orchestra.

Four bags down

Pompano crew chief Steve Hogan stands in front of us as Innovation is backed away from the mast by the ground crew. Several crewmembers grapple with the ropes hanging from the front of the envelope. Others ring the cabin, using handlebars to hold us down. We’re about “four bags down” for the takeoff, right where Chandler, in the left seat, likes to be. I’m in the right seat observing. Using the handlebars, the crew has lifted the airship and removed weight until it hovers just above the ground. They then add four 25-pound bags of weight to a compartment under the cabin floor, making us about 100 pounds heavier than air, about “four bags down,” the ideal place to be for this light takeoff on this cool evening. While the ship is barely touching the ground, the envelope, car, and fuel “weigh” some 14,500 pounds. “Light landings are the worst,” says Chandler. The blimp gets more difficult to handle near the ground when it’s light and is vulnerable to wind gusts. A little heavy and a light wind is ideal. The ship always lands into the wind, so it needs a large area to maneuver for touchdown. Still air demands nearly power-off approaches, and every little zephyr plays havoc with the ship—not good.

Hogan’s directing the orchestra with his hands as the crew expertly maneuvers the ship. When all is set, Chandler guns the engines, and the crew throws the ship up into the air as Chandler rolls back mightily on the big wooden elevator wheel between the two front seats. The blimp lumbers forward and dramatically pitches up nearly 30 degrees. I reach for something to hold onto because I know we’re going to die. No aircraft this slow can climb at that attitude, and yet we do. There are no seat belts. I miss that as we stagger away from the runway, staring up at the sky. As I find out later, 30 degrees up and down is business as usual for the blimp. Airspeed hardly changes even when seemingly pointed straight down.

Away from the airport, I slide over into the left seat while Chandler stands over my right shoulder. Minutes go by and we’re just passing over the golf course next to the airport, the beach still ahead. The airspeed indicator shows 18 KIAS. The Garmin 496 on the glareshield reports the groundspeed into the wind: 5 knots. Over the beach, I push the right rudder pedal to the floor and watch the nose 75 feet in front of me start to swing right. I hold my foot there as the ship lumbers about, like some slow-motion hover turn in a helicopter. Finishing the 360-degree turn back toward the water, I push full left rudder to stop the turn. As soon as the turn begins to stop, I take the rudder correction out. The key is to anticipate the moves. There is so much momentum that, like a big ship on the ocean, you have to seemingly over control to get it to do what you want.

The wind is strong and gusty off the water. The blimp rides it with aplomb. I use the big wheel to keep us at about 1,200 feet msl, but it’s quickly obvious that blimp flying is not for the perfectionists of the world. “Keep it pointed in the right direction and within a range of altitude and you’re fine,” Chandler says.

Cross-country the pilots set power on the Continentals at normal power settings, but always lean of peak exhaust gas temperature, resulting in speeds of 35 to even 40 knots. When the goal is visibility, as it is this evening with the big “AOPA Seven Zero” message on the electronic sign, we set up for 1,700 rpm and 19 inches of manifold pressure, burning just five gph per side. Three fuel tanks in the back carry as much as 133 gallons of avgas. Two 80-gallon aux tanks can be strapped on the back for up to 24 hours of endurance.

The pusher propellers are Q-Tips, meaning the outboard couple of inches are bent 90 degrees to reduce noise—especially important when flying over golf and tennis tournaments for TV coverage. The goal is to not disturb the players.

Chandler suggests I reverse the pitch of the propellers in flight. “You can back up,” he says, matter-of-factly. I look him in the eyes. He’s serious. I carefully inch the prop controls under my left hand backward. “Go ahead, pull them right on back,” he advises. I do, and sure enough in a couple of seconds we’re backing up. Every aeronautical sense developed over 30 years of flying tells me this is just plain wrong! Yet there goes that beach house we just passed over.

Later, after sunset, we fly across Pompano Beach looking for spotters—people who shine lights up at the blimp. We will respond in kind with the landing light that can turn 360 degrees. No takers tonight. Chandler tells how they sometimes race the cruise ships departing Miami, blazing “Bon Voyage” on the electronic sign.

All along, Chandler masterfully manipulates a series of valves in the overhead, keeping the pressure in the envelope in check. As we climb, the helium expands, necessitating the release of air from the ballonets to keep pressure on the envelope from getting too high. Pulling a valve moves a cable that opens beach-ball size valves either fore or aft. Descending, the helium is compressed by the higher ambient pressure, so other valves are opened, allowing air from scoops above the propellers to replenish the ballonets, restoring balance.

At the airport we maneuver into the wind and the V formed by the ground crew and its flashlights. Hogan has a white light at the point of the V. The guys waiting for the ropes have red lights forming the legs of the V. Chandler is working now. It’s dark and gusty. He’s horsing the ship around in a purposeful way, and we’re soon inches above the surface. The ship rolls onto the grass on its single wheel right toward the crew. They rush forward, grab the ropes, and we’re tugged toward the giant mast, soon locked onto it and engines shut down—ready for the careful trip back to the hangar.

“Free” exposure

Imagine the cost of such an operation, yet no money changes hands when the blimp appears over some event. Goodyear relies on the TV networks to provide shots of the blimp and an on-screen graphic touting its latest tire deal in exchange for the ships providing the bird’s-eye view of the event. Goodyear supplies its own camera gear and operators on the blimp and at the microwave receiving station.

Imagine, though, the power of having tens of thousands of fans at some football game or NASCAR race peering up at the big, lovable billboard while tens of million more watch from home. “The blimp is a corporate icon that is unparalleled,” says Pierre Jambon, Goodyear’s general manager of global aviation.

Next time you see a Goodyear blimp remember that while it looks simple and serene, there’s a lot going on to make it look that way—and 100 years of history backing it up.

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100 years of Goodyear Aviation history

A blimp is a non-rigid airship (a “limp” ship). Dirigible is the French word for airship, thus any airship can be called a dirigible. Very large airships need structure to support the envelope fabric, leading to semi-rigid and rigid craft, such as the Hindenburg built by Zeppelin that have structure inside or outside the envelope.

Two schools of thought persist on where the term “blimp” originated. Some suggest a British military officer coined the word after hearing the noise an inflated airship makes if you snap it with your finger (blimp). Others say it comes from the early Goodyear “B” model airships, which were of the limp variety, resulting in the B-Limp designation, which became simply “blimp.” Today’s Goodyear blimps are the “G” model, GZ-20 to be exact.

Goodyear has built some 300 airships over the years, including about 260 for the Navy—mostly for submarine spotting. Charles Goodyear was never associated with the company that bears his name. The inventor died a pauper in 1860 after a lifetime of tinkering with rubber and ultimately accidentally developing vulcanized rubber, turning it from goo into a stable product for all sorts of uses. Frank Seiberling and his brother Charles founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1898, naming their entity after the rubber pioneer.

Continental IO-360 engines power the Goodyear blimps. Louvers surrounding the propeller hub force additional cooling air into the pusher engines. Scoops grab prop wash to inflate the ballonets when required. A simple gauge (right) shows pressure inside the envelope. Senior Rigger Glen Wallace uses a boatswain’s chair to check the top of the blimp for leaks.

The 1,175-foot Airdock in Akron (once housed a partnership with Zeppelin Company. The Inflatoplane was never produced.The pilot uses the valve controls (just above the windshield) to manage pressure in the envelope. The ship-like elevator wheel gets a workout, especially on gusty and turbulent days.

The ride looks serene from below, but ground crews know what a handful the big windsock can be in gusty conditions. Every crew member has multiple jobs, but when it’s launch and recovery time, all hands are on the ropes.

Goodyear believes blimp travel is probably the safest means of transportation ever. Since 1925 when commercial passenger operations began, they’ve never seriously injured a passenger.