Aviation News


Goodyear Set to Retire Spirit of America

Last summer, Goodyear entered the next generation of its world-renowned airships with the introduction of Wingfoot One, a semi-rigid Zeppelin model. Goodyear continues to update its fleet of airships with the retirement of its California-based GZ-20A blimp, Spirit of America. NYCAviation was given the opportunity to ride aboard Spirit of America on its final day of passenger flights last week.

Goodtyear Blimp Spirit of AmericaChristened in 2002, Spirit of America has since made 8,005 flights and has carried 30,320 passengers while accumulating 13,436 hours in the air. Her name was chosen as a patriotic tribute to our nation following 9/11. During her career she has flown over the Rose Parade, Academy Awards, Super Bowl week activities, X-Games and hundreds of NCAA, NBA, MLB and NHL games. She was even briefly rebranded to “LIGHTYEAR” in 2011 to promote the Disney/Pixar animated film Cars 2.

On June 30, Spirit of America wrapped up her final promotional tour — a 29-day, 2,800 mile trip up to the Pacific Northwest for the PGA’s U.S. Open, then down to Sacramento for the U.S. Senior Open.

So, what happens to a blimp when it’s retired? Once a blimp has reached the end of its useable life cycle, it gets scrapped — just like an airplane. And like an airplane, many of a blimp’s parts get recycled. In the case of Spirit of America, after her retirement celebration she will be flown to Tustin, California to be decommissioned. Goodyear spokeswoman Priscilla Tasker said that the Goodyear titles on the helium bag will be removed and shipped back to Goodyear headquarters in Suffield, Ohio. The remainder of it will primarily be donated to the Trash for Teaching organization, for education programs in the region. Most of it will be cut up and then sectioned into fabric to be made into tote bags for teachers. Some swatches of the material will be kept at the base and then used to demonstrate what the blimps are made from when Goodyear goes into local schools and assists with S.T.E.M. education programs.

Goodyear Blimp Base AkronGoodyear owns the oldest airship base in the United States, at Wingfoot Lake, near Akron, Ohio — only three hours from the birthplace of aviation and home of the Wright Brothers in Dayton. The company established an aeronautics department in 1910 to market rubber materials and fabrics for airplanes. The Akron Airship Base was created in 1916, and Goodyear began building blimps for the military shortly thereafter. Goodyear has been flying blimps promotionally since 1925, when various aerobatic stunts and oddities were sure to draw crowds of thousands of potential customers. The Pilgrim was the first non-rigid commercial airship flown using helium. In 1930, the Goodyear Blimp Defender became the world’s first airship to carry lighted signs for messaging. The lighting system was called the Neon-O-Gram. From 1929 to 1933, the first Goodyear rigid airships The Akron and The Macon were built at the Akron air base for the U.S. military. Several of Goodyear’s pilots at the time were also Naval officers. The Akron and Macon were capable of carrying several dozen passengers. The Akron crashed into the ocean off the coast of New Jersey on April 4, 1933. The deadliest airship disaster in history, it took 73 lives of 76 passengers on board, partly attributed to the lack of life jackets. The Macon also crashed, but only three lives were lost. In 1940, Goodyear even experimented with broadcasting music and live greetings from The Resolute. Goodyear continued to build blimps for the U.S. Navy through World War II and into the 1960s, when the program was discontinued.

On January 1, 1955, Enterprise V became the first blimp to provide aerial coverage for a television event, the Tournament of Roses parade. Goodyear expanded its aerial signage in the 1960s with the addition of colored bulbs. Each blimp had 1,540 red, green, yellow and blue bulbs on each side, which allowed for colored images and moving text and pictures. In addition to its three U.S. bases, Goodyear expanded to Europe in the 1970s. The company built The Europa in England, then established its base near Rome, Italy. In 1972, Wingfoot Lake was closed, and all airships were built and maintained in Spring, Texas, north of Houston.

Carson, California has been a Goodyear Blimp base since 1968. The base is built on top of an old landfill right next to the 405 freeway. Beginning in September, the Carson Airship base will be the temporary home to Goodyear’s Spirit of Innovation which was christened in 2006. And by the end of 2016, Carson will receive the second new generation airship, identical to Wingfoot One. Finally, in 2018, the third and final new airship will be sent to Goodyear’s base in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Spirit of America CockpitHaving been aboard Wingfoot One on its inauguration day in Suffield, Ohio last year, I thought I knew what blimp rides were all about. Seeing the cockpit of Spirit of America in comparison to Wingfoot one was a lot like comparing the flight deck of a modern 737-700 to a classic 737-300. The new airship has modern “glass cockpit” displays, while Spirit of America has old-school dials and gages. The blimps in actuality could not be more different.

Goodyear Pilot Captain William Bayliss told me the FAA does indeed have a special license for airship pilots, called the Lighter Than Air endorsement. This takes about two years to earn, requires a private pilot’s license and medical clearance as a prerequisite and can be earned as early as age 17. Captain Bayliss has been flying Goodyear blimps for two years; he told me his favorite event to cover was the retirement game of soccer star Landon Donovan at nearby StubHub Center. While riding in the other front seat next to Bayliss, he told me, “I can’t emphasize how much of a team effort it to operate one of these.” As we cruised toward Manhattan Beach, I had a good view of LAX, where an Emirates A380 was landing. Over the beach, we dove closer to the water at about a 20-degree angle, “putting on a show” for beachgoers. As I watched him control the airship, he pulled various knobs that were attached to cords, adjusting the flight of the blimp. He explained that the temperatures outside have a huge effect of the blimp, because heat causes the air in the blimp to expand, and it’s also susceptible to thermals just like a glider. A wooden wheel to the right of his chair controlled the nose pitch, while he used rudder pedals to move the blimp left and right.

Spirit of America engineThe new Wingfoot generation of airships is controlled by a sidestick, much like an Airbus jet. The sidestick feeds inputs to three 200-horsepower vectored engines, which can attain an airspeed of up to 70 miles per hour with up to 14 people on board. Its cabin also includes a lavatory with a window. It is 54.4 feet longer than blimps of the pervious GZ-20A generation. In comparison, the Spirit of America has two 210-horsepower “pusher” engines, has a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, and only seats seven.

Goodyear’s blimps don’t only provide aerial TV coverage and tire company advertising. They also providing valuable flight time to organizations researching the environmental health of local areas they serve. Whale migration, river ecology and wildlife maintenance to name a few. The blimps have also been used for aerial surveillance after natural disasters — flying over earthquake and flood zones, including the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and Hurricane Katrina.

Paul Thompson has over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry. He is based in Denver, Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter at @FlyingPhotog or on his personal blog planegeek.com.

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Paul Thompson



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by BNO News