August 10, 2015

Photo Essay: Goodbye to a Goodyear Blimp

We've all seen one of them, right? If not soaring above our heads, then on a TV broadcast of some football game or World Series. It's hard to believe that it's even real—the Goodyear Blimp seems like a bit of odd history you only read about in books, like long-distance balloonists and concrete ships.

Rides in the blimp are such a hot commodity, they are auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars at charity fundraisers. And the only other way to get inside one is to be invited by Goodyear corporate.

Since I'm neither a rubber salesman nor a pilot or Make-a-Wish beneficiary, the only way I've been able to get up close and personal with a blimp is by visiting its airfield in Carson, CA.

On one special weekend, Goodyear unlocked its gates to allow the public to say goodbye to their "Spirit of America" blimp, which they officially took out of commission today, August 10, 2015.

Airfield visitors are greeted by a historical sign from 1919, which was saved from destruction and moved here after the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Plant closed in 1983.

During my visit, I not only got to walk out onto the runway (which isn't much of a landing strip, since the airship must be more or less "set down" and then tethered)...

...but also got a private Q&A and tour of the blimp's exterior with one of its senior pilots, Bill Bayliss.

The blimp itself is kind of a moving target, even after it has landed. After all, it never really "lands"—the helium inside its non-rigid envelope is always lifting it off the ground...

...and the wind is always setting it adrift.

It is tethered on one end to keep it from flying away unmanned...

...but it can still swing around in either direction, whichever way the wind blows.

Personnel must keep an eye on the blimp 24/7, adjusting the lines and adding or subtracting weights to try to stabilize it...

...sometimes just yanking it down with pure human force. All the crew members are pilots, and all the pilots are crew members. Everybody does every job, and each pilot is working, whether he's flying or not.

When it's in flight, the Goodyear Blimp has the right of way wherever it goes—because other aircraft can see it before its pilots can see them, and they can steer clear of it a lot more quickly and easily than the blimp can.

The "Spirit of America" was christened in 2002 and retires after 13 years of service, over 8000 flights, and more than 30,000 passengers. Its next stop is the hangar at Tustin's former Marine Corps Air Station, which is one of the largest free-standing wooden structures in the world. Goodyear will donate the blimp's gondola (the part you sit in) to the Planes of Fame museum in Chino and the interior materials of the envelope to an educational organization.

Thankfully, LA won't be without a blimp for very long. Its replacement, the "Spirit of Innovation," was christened in 2006, and next month it will fly from Florida to the West Coast at low altitude (~10,000 ft., though it can fly above the cloud line) and low speed (up to 50 mph, but more like 35 mph). The Spirit of Innovation is considered the Spirit of America's twin, and will take over the coverage of Southern California's major league sports games and awards ceremonies for a year while assembly of  a new airship—a semi-rigid one, though they'll still call it a blimp—is completed in Ohio and will be bound for LA.

This year, Goodyear celebrates 90 years of aerial advertising and 60 years of aerial broadcasting (its first being the 1955 Rose Bowl). The Carson airship base has been in operation since 1968 and has been home to eight Goodyear blimps so far. But how much longer will this type of promotional stunt go on? After all, helium is a finite resource, and the U.S. has cornered the market on it. Hydrogen is too inflammable, and has already spectacularly and tragically failed in passenger airship operations. So what next?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Marine Corp Air Station & North Hangar, Tustin - Closed
Adventure Is Out There! Wine Country Edition

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