Goodyear Blimp Spirit of Innovation

Photo Courtesy of Goodyear

The evolution of blimps and airships has been discussed in the previous three articles up to the 1950s. To read these previous articles, please visit Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Blimps were used for advertising and during World War II they were used as part of the Navy’s convoy escort. After the war, blimps again were put into service for advertising and public relations. In 1955, television network NBC used the Enterprise V to provide a live television picture of a nationally televised program when it broadcast the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. From then on the blimps have continued to go onward and awe newer generations.

Post World War II

After the war, Goodyear picked up its fleet operations by purchasing seven L-ships (smaller training ships) and six K-ships (ships designed as patrol ships) from the United States Government. A number of airships including the Ranger, Volunteer, Enterprise and Mayflower were put into service at the time. Goodyear built 40 airships for the Navy at the Wingfoot Lake Airship Airdock following World War II.

A Naval Reserve group assigned to Squadron ZP-651 was also based at Wingfoot for a time. The ZP-651 was a reserve lighter-than-air patrol squadron based at the Naval Air Station in Akron, Ohio. The U.S. Naval Air Station existed in Akron, Ohio from 1948-1958 at the Fulton Airport.

A number of national newspapers reported on November 4, 1946 that an all-new XM-1 blimp set a new duration record. The ship set off from Lakehurst New Jersey on a Sunday at 3:32 p.m. and “roamed along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico for 170 hours and 18 minutes,” according to news reports. The U.S. Navy airship then landed at Glynco, Georgia. It was a new endurance record for continuous flight without refueling.

In 1957 a U.S. Navy ZPG-2 airship set a new endurance record of 264 hours and 12 minutes and a non-stop refueling distance record of 9,448 miles. The non-rigid airship made an 11-day nonstop non-refueled flight from South Weymouth, Massachusetts across the Atlantic and back westward via the West Indies to Key West. The flight was made to evaluate prolonged operations of airships in anti-submaries and airborne early warning radar service. The flight included some extreme weather conditions such as snow, rain and high winds.

In 1947 Goodyear announced that the blimp Mayflower would take a 9,000 mile “goodwill tour” scheduled for 90 days and would include stops in 14 states, including Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Louisiana and the State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. The tour was to promote interest in lighter-than-aircraft. The Mayflower, one of five ships that was used by the Navy during the war for training purposes, was equipped with bombs and machine guns and served during the first years of the war. The Mayflower, known as a “baby blimp” compared to rigid airships, carried an honorable discharge emblem and was a member of the naval reserve. Painted on her side was the “ruptured duck” emblem which showed her discharge from Navy service.

Goodyear Blimp Mayflower

The Goodyear Blimp Mayflower (Photo courtesy of Goodyear)

The first stop on the tour was Richmond, Indiana, where the Mayflower arrived after a four-hour trip. The blimp was on display at the Municipal airport where townspeople visited to look at the airship. Three pilots navigated the blimp on the promotional tour: S.H. Sheppard, John Rieker and Jack Dorner. Sheppard was from Miami Florida and Rieker and Dorner were both from Akron. All three men were Navy blimp pilots during World War II. Arriving before the blimp was the ground crew. They reached the site in a truck and specially-equipped bus used for mooring and contact purposes. There was a crew chief, a radio and weatherman, and a clerk. Prior to its midwestern tour in Indiana, the Mayflower had toured the southern state as well as flights through the New England states.

The book, “When Giants Roamed the Sky” sums up the post war era in Akron by saying, “The navy returned its borrowed ships to Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Nearly all of the wartime patrol blimps were deflated and stored. They were sold to private contractors, including Howard Hughes, to be used for advertising purposes.”

By 1948 the Navy showed renewed interest in the unique and long range capabilities of airships, issuing a call for heavier-than-air (HTA) aviators to transition to LTA operations. Eighteen officers reported for duty to the Airship Training Unit (ZTU) at NAS Lakehurst. The venerable K-type airship was upgraded to “2K” with improvements such as electric propellers with reversible pitch, in-flight refueling, more sophisticated ASW radar, magnetic detection equipment, sonar capability, and equipment allowing communication between surface vessels and other aircraft.

Fleet Airship Wing 1 was re-commissioned in January, 1949 for administrative and operational control of ZP-1, ZP-2, and ZX -11. In September, 1950, ZP-3 was commissioned at Lakehurst and ZP-4 was commissioned at Weeksville 8 months later. The entirely new “4K” (ZSG-4) airship, outwardly similar to the WWII K-types, incorporated previous upgrades and added new capabilities.
In the 1940s and into the 1950s, Goodyear built a series of large surveillance airships used to protect merchant fleets along the coast and serve as early warning radar stations. The ZPG-2 model could stay aloft for more than a week at a time. In fact, an airship of this type, the Snow Bird, still holds the flying endurance record with 11 consecutive days in flight. In March 1957, Snow Bird flew from Weymouth, Massachusetts to Europe, Africa and Key West, Florida, without refueling or landing. (goodyearblimp.com)

“Snow Goose” Goes To The Arctic Circle

When a Navy blimp returned to its home base in South Weymouth, Massachusetts in August of 1958, it was christened the “Snow Goose” by its crew. The reason for the name was it’s 8,000 mile trip north of the Arctic Circle to a place called Cornwallis Island and a floating ice island 500 miles from the North Pole. The trip took 77 hours and was in the air for 76 of those hours, only stopping to refuel at Churchill, Manitoba.

The expedition was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the purpose of the trip was to test the feasibility of using blimps to carry supplies and also in scientific observation. Because of the 24-hour arctic sun, airplane landings were impossible on slushy icepacks in the summer. It had been four months since the last plane had touched down on an icy runway which was now slush.

The blimp made a mail drop on Cornwallis Island which is manned by International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) scientists. Some depth charges for underwater sound studies were also dropped in the surrounding Arctic Ocean. Because the blimp was able to fly low and slow, it opened up the possibility of using blimps to supply submarines in polar regions.

Television Coverage

Goodyear blimp coverage of college football

Photo Courtesy of Goodyear

On January 1,1960 Goodyear was the first to cover a sporting event with a TV camera in a blimp. The event, the Orange Bowl, featured the Georgia Bulldogs and the Missouri Tigers. Georgia quarterback Fran Tarkenton led his team to a 14-0 win over Missouri.

In 1977 the Associated Press distributed a story about the Goodyear blimp and the history of its tv coverage. The story said, “ Since television networks began using the blimp in 1960, the airship has become as much a part of the American sports scene as hot dogs, cold beer and bleacher seats.” According to Dennis Lewin, the coordinating producer of ABC’S “Wide World of Sports,” “It is also quite important to our over-all coverage. Shots from the blimp are the best way to do a scene set, to put every thing about an event into perspective. For example, when we do an auto race, we use the blimp shots to show how the course is laid out. If there was a New York Grande Prix in Central Park, for instance, the blimp could give us shots of the entire course while also showing where we are in relation to the Manhattan skyline.”

Lewin went on to say that during the coverage of the Bing Crosby golf tournament at Pebble Beach in 1977, they got a great shot of whales off shore in the ocean. “Only the blimp could have given that to us,” he said.

In 1977 ABC used the blimp more often than other networks but CBS was the first in it’s coverage of the Orange Bowl in 1960. During those early days, Goodyear and the networks ran into several problems which included heavy equipment which was bulky and hard to operate. In 1967 Goodyear bought its own equipment and the networks provided their own cameramen and video engineers.

In the same story, Tom Allison, public relations director for Goodyear, said, “It costs $1.2 million to operate one of the ships for a year. That includes salaries for more than 20 people and various operating expenses.” Goodyear did not charge for use of its blimps and considered it a public service when they allowed the blimps to be used for television coverage.

In 1977 the movie “Black Sunday,” was released. The film, directed by John Frankenheimer used three blimps to film the movie about a Black September terrorist group attempting to blow up a Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl stadium with 80,000 people including the president of the United States in attendance. The chief blimp pilot at the time, Nick Nicolary, was a consultant. In the movie he is fatally shot in his hijacked blimp by Bruce Dern.

LTA – The Lighter Than Air Society

Lighter Than Air SocietyIn 1952, the Lighter-Than-Air-Society was started as an employee activity at Goodyear. The not-for-profit organization is devoted to the study of the history, science and techniques of all forms of buoyant flight. Individually, and as a group, members believe in the advantages that lighter-than-air vehicles (balloons and airships) have in many transportation, promotional, sport, scientific and defense applications.

Over the years membership grew beyond the company and Lighter-Than-Air became a separate entity in 1975, open to the public. There are members all over the world. To find out more about becoming a member see the website, blimpinfo.com

New Airships are Built

In 2013 the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company announced that it had begun construction on the first airship which would herald in a “new generation” to replace the fleet of blimps. Work began in March of that year at the historic Wingfoot Lake hangar in Suffield. Engineers and technicians from Goodyear joined forces with Germany’s ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik to build a new airship. Tail fins and the gondola were built in Germany and then sent to the United States to be assembled. “Wingfoot One,” was christened in August 2014 by Robin Roberts of ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”

The result of the joint operation between Goodyear and ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik produced three new zeppelins, called Goodyear Blimp NTs (“new technology”). They would go on to replace the company’s current model blimp, the GZ20-A. German and American crews worked side by side to construct the first of three Goodyear Blimp NTs.

Goodyear Blimp Wingfoot One

Wingfoot One (Photo courtesy of Goodyear)

The differences between this new fleet of zeppelins and its blimp predecessors include their size, structure, and interior mechanics. Michael Dougherty is the assistant chief pilot and one of three pilots who have trained for several months in Germany with the Zeppelin crew. His mission was to learn the ins and outs of these helium-filled behemoths and to become a trainer for current and future Goodyear pilots. “Being involved in the new airships, seeing the new technology, learning it to the point where we’re going to teach it … has been a really fulfilling experience,” said Dougherty who is the chief pilot of Wingfoot One. About the length of a football field, the ship is 54 feet longer than the Spirit of American, which Doughtery trained in.

Wingfoot Two was christened in October 2016 by Savannah James, wife of LeBron James at the Wingfoot Lake hangar. The cabin of the ship can carry up to 12 people and has seats similar to an airplane – but with more leg room. There are wide windows on both sides and a bathroom with a window. Wingfoot Two is based in Carson, California and Pompano Beach, Florida is home to Wingfoot One. A third airship – Wingfoot Three – will be built at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake hangar near Akron. Once complete, it will remain based in Northeast Ohio.

As the new era of airships / blimps began, older blimps were retired. in 2014, the Spirit of Goodyear retired after covering that year’s Daytona 500. It had been the longest continuous operated airship up to that time. In August of 2015, the Los Angeles based blimp Spirit of America was decommissioned. It was to be replaced with it’s twin ship Spirit of Innovation in September.

The Goodyear blimps have paired with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for six years in the Toys for Tots Foundation at the three blimp bases in Ohio, California and Florida. These events provide the public with an opportunity to make a donation to Toys for Tots while enjoying an up-close and personal view of the airships. In Suffield, at the Wingfoot Lake hangar, participants can drive through the hangar and drop off toys. Goodyear first nicknamed one of its blimps the “Santa Claus Express” in 1927 so the tradition has been revised and comes full circle.

Last But Not Least – Riding in a Blimp

The Goodyear Airlock

The Goodyear Airlock (Photo by Sandy Bee Lynn)

Not too many “civilians” get to ride in the blimp, but if you do, you will never forget it. It’s the trip of a lifetime. The ride is smooth, slow and close to the ground. When I rode the Spirit of Goodyear in 2010, I was able to sit in the front seat, next to the pilot, Jerry Hissem. My husband and three other people were also on board and we all wore headphones, which lessens the noise and enabled us to converse with each other. The cabin windows were open and you can lean out and wave to people on the ground. You can see houses and roads and buildings much better than you can from an airplane and you’re traveling at about 30 miles per hour.

Canal Park view from Blimp

Canal Park in Downtown Akron, Ohio (Photo by Sandy Bee Lynn)

We flew from the Wingfoot Lake Airship Base to downtown Akron on a slightly overcast day in April. We passed over the ball parks and cemeteries and the Akron Expressway. (A friend driving home from work on the expressway said she was honking her horn as we flew over because she knew we were “up there.” As we got to downtown Akron, my heart raced as I saw familiar buildings from a new perspective – E.J. Thomas Hall, Canal Park, and the Quaker Square silos. On our way back to Wingfoot we went over Akron Fulton Airport and the iconic Goodyear Airdock.

On the website goodyearblimp.com is a passenger guide and a “blimp ride certificate request” information sheet. For the most part, rides on the Goodyear Blimps are available only at the invitation of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Due to the limited number of seats available, most riders are Goodyear customers through dealer relationships, winners of local charity auctions, local dignitaries or members, of the media. The website is also a wealth of information about all things related to blimps.

To experience your own “Lighter-Than-Air” flight you can go to YouTube and visit two short (two minute) clips featuring Jerry Hissem explaining how the blimp is navigated and his thoughts about piloting them. The first one is from 2013 and is titled “I fly a Goodyear blimp” and here is the second video titled “Fly inside the new Goodyear blimp”:

The Goodyear blimps are a unique part of Akron, Ohio history. May they continue to fly for many more years and grace our skies.

This is the fourth and final article in a four part series of articles on the History of Blimps in Akron, Ohio by local author and former Slater & Zurz LLP client Sandy Bee Lynn.