The History of the Goodyear Blimp

goodyear-blimpIt’s a bird! It’s a plane! Oh… it’s, a blimp… 1925 marked the year when the first Goodyear airships ascended to the skies. More than 85 years later, the iconic Goodyear blimps can still be spotted drifting through the clouds during football games, basketball tournaments, and even over the 2012 London Olympics.

While today the Goodyear blimps are invariable associated with sporting events and used for advertising purposes, this was not always the case.  Goodyear started out in the “blimp” industry by making the envelopes for these types of airships. They then worked into creating the airships themselves and were soon awarded with a government contract to do just that.

Five years after Goodyear created its first airship, two massive rigid aircraft named the USS Akron and the USS Macon were born. These flying wonders were created for the US Navy and carried specialty planes like the F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawks, which could be launched and retrieved during flight for long range scouting and defensive purposes as neither airships were equipped with weapons.

These massive aircraft were built with internal metal frames, could carry and maintain up to five planes while airborne, and were over two football fields in length, weighing in at a stunning 400,000 pounds (181,437 kg). 6.5 million cubic feet of helium was needed to lift the monumental ships into the sky.

On April 3, 1933, the Akron was sent out to calibrate radio direction to find equipment along the northeastern coast of the United States. Only a few minutes after midnight, the aircraft was hit with a series of strong winds which caused the ship’s tail to strike water and crash. A heartbreaking 73 lives were lost that night with only three survivors.

February 12, 1935, the Macon joined its sister aircraft when it hit a storm and its upper vertical fin was damaged. The blimp rapidly climbed to a dangerous altitude of 5,000 feet, which caused the automatic gas valves to open and release helium before its unavoidable decent. The Akron crashed in the Atlantic Ocean- the USS Macon met a similar fate, crashing into the Pacific. Thankfully, due to the tragic loss of the Akron two years prior, the Macon was equipped with life-jackets and rafts which saved 81 lives and only 2 were lost.

Despite the loss of the USS Akron and the USS Macon and the declining popularity of these types of aircraft, Goodyear continued to design and build airships and between the 1940s and the 1950s, the company built a series of surveillance airships for the U.S. government. These blimps were created to watch and protect merchant ships along the coast, as well as monitor and send early warning of an incoming attack if present.

One of history’s most historic aircraft, the Goodyear-built ZPG-2 (The Snow Bird), was among the surveillance fleet. At the time, the record for continuous flight without landing or refueling was set at 200 hours and 26 minutes. On March 4, 1957, Snow Bird took flight from NAS South Weymouth near Boston, Massachusetts and after an impressive eleven day voyage, the airship landed at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida on March 15, 1957breaking the previous record for continuous flight.

Since then, four Goodyear blimps have crashed due to bad weather or malfunctions, the most recent accident was The Spirit of Safety which, ironically enough, on June 12, 2011 caught fire. The Australian pilot, Mike Nerandzic, was a hero during that crash. The three survivors of the crash told the media that the blimp had caught fire during landing. Once the blimp was a mere two meters off the ground, Mike told the three passengers to jump to safety, which they did.  In his last moments, rather than attempt to escape himself, Mike steered away the burning blimp from his ground crew and was later found dead at the controls.

As to how the Goodyear blimp became inexorably associated with sporting events, this happened in 1960 when Goodyear, with the end of their government contract for airships looming, switched gears and decided to try using their blimps as aerial platforms for cameras during sporting events.  This provided a service for sports coverage outlets while simultaneously functioning as a highly visible advertising platform for Goodyear itself.  The first such event partially filmed by cameras aboard a Goodyear blimp was the 1960 Orange Bowl in Miami.

Needless to say, this has worked out exceedingly well for the company with Goodyear blimps traveling an average of 100,000 miles per year to various major sporting events, which is saying something considering they travel at an average speed of just 35 mph (about 16 km/h), though they are capable of speeds as high as 53 mph with favorable winds and the twin 210 horsepower engines at full throttle.

Today, the Goodyear name can still be spotted drifting through the clouds on one of its four active blimps, three of which function in the United States and one in China.  The three U.S. ships are The Spirit of America, The Spirit of Goodyear, and The Spirit of Innovation. The Navigator can be found over the skies of China.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Contrary to what you may read, the word “blimp” did not come about from the fact that “Type B” airships in the United States were non-rigid, hence Type B-limp.  While there were Type A and Type B class airships in the U.S., the word “blimp” popped up in 1916 in England, a year before the Type B classification in the U.S.  There is also no documented evidence of the U.S. Type-B class ever being called “limp”.
  • As to the real origin of the word “blimp”, this is up for debate, but it’s generally credited to British Navy officer Lt. A.D. Conningham.  The story goes that he coined the word after the noise that’s made when flicking or tapping the airship’s outer envelope.
  • The three U.S. based Goodyear blimps hold over 200K cubic feet of helium.  The total weight of the airship rings in at 12,840 lbs (5824 kg).  However, when fully inflated with helium, the total apparent weight of the ship is typically regulated at just 100-200 pounds.  If you want to look completely macho and you have connections with the higher ups at Goodyear, perhaps lying underneath one of the Goodyear blimps when inflated and bench pressing it might be in order. 😉
  • The maximum rated height of the current fleet of Goodyear Blimps is 5K ft. (1524 meters).  However, its average flight height is generally around just 1,000-1,500 ft. (304 to 457 meters).
  • Based in the city of Carson, California, The Spirit of America flies proudly between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles. This blimp was christened on September 5, 2002 by Mrs. Letitia Driscoll, the mother of an NYPD officer named Stephen Driscoll who had lost his life on September 11, 2001, in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
  • The Spirit of America has a crew of one pilot and up to five passengers (by invite only) and performs an average of ten flights a day. The blimp provides a bird’s eye view during special events and at night it will light up with 165,000 LED’s and with over 256 colors to advertise companies, charities, and other events.
  • The second blimp, titled The Spirit of Goodyear, can be found in Akron, Ohio where it often flies over the home of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber company. This blimp was christened by the first American female to go into space, Dr. Sally Ride, on March 15, 2000.
  • The Navigator was the first Goodyear aircraft to voyage all the way to China. Before setting off on its adventure, the Goodyear company designed a web page on sina.com which invited the Chinese citizens to name the blimp that would fly over their country. Hundreds of entries were submitted and eventually the decision was made to call it Lang Hang Zhe, which translates to Navigator.
  • The Spirit of Innovation patrols Pompano Beach, Florida. This blimp was also named via an online “name-the-blimp” contest. The Spirit of Innovation is the youngest Goodyear blimp and was christened on June 21, 2006 by Lesa France Kennedy, the president of International Speedway Corporation, along with Lynn Keegan, who is the wife the Goodyear Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Keegan.
[Image Courtesy of Keith Bell / Shutterstock.com] Expand for References
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  • Yer Pal

    I live in central Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba) & many airlines fly people & goods to northern Canada & the arctic from our city airports… it’s big biz. Recently there have been stories on the news about using unmanned blimps to deliver goods to the northern communities instead of the very very expensive planes & pilots method. It’s a new twist on an old idea!