A flying machine reminiscent of those imagined long ago by Jules Verne begins a slow, almost reluctant turn as pilot Michael Dougherty pushes one rudder pedal more than a full foot forward. His right hand spins a large wooden wheel that flanks his seat like a steamship’s paddlewheel, while his eyes scan the sky moving ever so slowly by. Forward and back, he spins the wheel, sensing through his seat small oscillations in air that gently buffet the 192-foot long behemoth. Helium balances up to 12,800 pounds of polyester, neoprene, and aluminum, and Dougherty must keep air and helium pressures in trim by working a series of valves actuated by knobs and pull cables that move air forward and back, inside and out of an American icon.
About 800 feet below, the crowd at EAA AirVenture thins with the approaching sunset. Those who look skyward will see the Goodyear blimp Spirit of Goodyear , one of three airships that have crisscrossed the country for decades, lumbering slowly (30 mph or less, excluding winds) above major sporting events and other public gatherings, taking pictures for network television and broadcasting messages on a giant computer-controlled array of lights strung along the side of its low-pressure envelope.
On the ground, a dozen strong crew members await Dougherty’s return. The pilot will use engine power and elevators controlled by that large wooden wheel to drive the ship back to earth, where it must be caught and held, its passengers exchanged carefully to keep the blimp in balance. Once ready for takeoff, the crew grips a rail around the bottom of the gondola and heaves it skyward, and then pulls it back down, bouncing the blimp on its landing wheel and back toward the sky as the pilot advances the throttles and pitches the blimp to a steep incline—up to 30 degrees of pitch.
All of this is about to change: The age of the blimp, which is to say the age of the nonrigid airship carrying Goodyear colors, is about to end. Goodyear has rekindled an old partnership with the German company ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co, one that began in the 1920s and ended with the start of World War II. Together, the companies will produce—in Akron, Ohio—a set of replacements for the old blimps, Zeppelin NT airships with a semi-rigid frame. Testing will begin in 2013. The pilots will no longer rely on ground crews to capture them or fling them skyward: A Zeppelin NT, with rotating engines mounted high above the canopy on the airship’s semi-rigid frame, will vector thrust where it is needed. The new airships will be able to launch and land like a helicopter, controlled with a fly-by-wire side stick in a cockpit more reminiscent of a regional airliner than the cockpit Dougherty occupies over Oshkosh, Wis., with analog gauges and a smattering of digital screens (GPS and weather radar among them) installed long after the airship entered service.
Dougherty, one of the first Goodyear pilots to train on the new airship, said there are many perks to the upgrade from the pilot’s perspective.
“This is a physical challenge to fly,” Dougherty said of the blimp, noting its constant demand for attention, anticipation, and action inside the cockpit. On IFR cross-country trips, pilots change places on the hour to control fatigue. But with the dawn of the new age of Zeppelin airships, that will change. Able to rotate engine pods and direct thrust, a Zeppelin NT can launch and land without outside help.
Dougherty, assistant chief pilot and an airline veteran, said increased ease of maneuvering and elimination of ground crews to grab dangling ropes and gondola rails will put a new demand on the pilots: “In the NT, it’s all on the pilot, so you really have to be focused when you’re on the ground.”
A technical purist might be tempted to squawk, but Goodyear has no intention of changing one tradition: When the Zeppelin NTs enter service in early 2014, they will still be known as the “Goodyear blimp.” The Akron, Ohio, tire and rubber company has no intention of sacrificing such a well-established brand name on the altar of technical accuracy.
“I love the name,” said company spokesman Ed Ogden. “That name’s not coming out of my head.”