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More than Just a Flying Billboard: Inside the Goodyear Blimp
If you were watching the PGA Golf Tournament at Bethpage Black on television this weekend, there’s a good chance that part of the live feed on your television came from the Goodyear Blimp. A frequent attendee at many of the country’s most notable sporting events, the massive airship with the “Goodyear” name emblazoned across the side is a veritable superstar. While it was preparing to head over to the golf tournament, AirlineGeeks was able to get an up-close look at this unique airship.
One of the last operators these airships, Goodyear’s airships can typically be seen flying high above professional sports matches and other outdoors events, a traditional lasting nearly a century. The ultimate brand ambassador, as the low-flying airship and Goodyear name is instantly recognizable from miles away, various blimps and airships have been promoting the Goodyear brand across the world since 1925.
In town for its 4-day mission, Wingfoot Three made its home on the grounds of Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Wingfoot Three, based near the company’s headquarters in Akron, Ohio, is one of three airships in Goodyear’s fleet and one of its newest, having been built by Zeppelin in 2018.
MacArthur Airport was chosen by Goodyear to temporarily house the blimp as it was the closest airport with a large enough landing area for the airship. Though capable of vertical take-offs and landings, these airships can’t land just anywhere, requiring a wide open flat surface to make their camp when visiting a new area.
Nearby Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y. was once the landing site for Goodyear before it adopted a new class of airship, the semi-rigid Zeppelin NT LZ N07-101, which couldn’t use the small Class D airport because of its lack of a suitable landing area for the large ship. Goodyear previously manufactured its own airships but decided to join back up with Zeppelin and take advantage of the latest in airship technology with the Zeppelin New Technology airship.
Since the new Zeppelins are semi-rigid as the interior is supported by trusses, they are not technically blimps, though they are still referred to as such and the aerodynamics remain the same. On the outside, two rotating propellers on each side accompanied by a rear propeller provide the thrust for the airship while on the inside, ballonets control pressure and lift.
A benefit of the new Zeppelin of the previous Goodyear blimps is the tail propeller which helps push the aircraft and the lateral propeller on the tail similar to a helicopter’s tail rotor. With these improvements, the Goodyear Blimp is capable of flying at speeds of 70 knots over the ground.
While less than that of a general aviation trainer aircraft, speed is not necessarily the goal as the pilots told AirlineGeeks that they often fly indirect routings over cities and interstates for maximum exposure. After all, what good is having your name in big bold letters if nobody is going to see it?
The gondola of the airship, which houses the cockpit and passenger cabin, is surprisingly not unlike that of a small aircraft. This airship can hold 10 passengers with 10 seats in a 1-1 configuration with very generous legroom and a wide cabin surrounded by large windows for maximum viewing pleasure.
Though no flight attendant will come around with drinks and snacks, the seats do also feature tray tables.
The airship even features a standard lavatory in the back, helpful to the pilots who often fly eight-hour shifts when covering longer events such as the golf tournament. Flying exclusively under Part 91 Federal Aviation Regulations, the only limit to how long these airships can stay in the air is the amount of aviation gasoline that the fuel tanks can hold. While golf tournaments typically require around 8-hours on station, cross country flights for repositioning can take longer if need be.
The cockpit up-front is surprisingly modern, featuring a full glass cockpit comprised of a Garmin 550 GPS.
Levers in the center console control the engine RPMs and mixture while levers in the overhead panel control helium.
Fly-by-wire technology powers the flight controls with the pilot utilizing a joystick that controls various dimensions of flight, similar to that found on an Airbus aircraft.
While the flight from MacArthur Airport to Bethpage Black only takes about 10 minutes, at which point the airship remains in a hover for the entirety of the event, the pilots cannot kick back and watch Tiger Woods play once overhead. A variety of factors come into play when covering an event such as a golf tournament.
When hovering, pilots must always ensure the aircraft is positioned into the wind, watch the air pressure and temperature and communicate with air traffic control. In the hover, the pilot will also change the angle of the propellers to ensure the wind holds the airship in place.
In addition to simply flying the aircraft, there are other considerations when covering golf. For the sake of the cameraman in the back, pilots must always position aircraft at the end of the fairway for the best shot while being careful as to not cast a shadow down below that could interrupt play. Once a player finishes a hole, the blimp must reposition to the next fairway.
What the public below doesn’t see is the amount of prep work that goes into launching the airship. A team of trucks and ground staff is always following the airship. Always have to scout out the landing areas before landing, the airship cannot touch down unless the ground crew is prepared to receive it.
Though it does have the advantage of not dealing with traffic, sometimes being the fastest doesn’t necessarily help. In the event that the trucks get stuck in traffic or the tailwinds are particularly strong, the airship will have to kill some time in the air waiting for the ground crew to get ready before they can land, which aids in Goodyear’s exposure as the blimp will continue to stay in the air and show off the Goodyear name in bright yellow letters.
Among the trucks on the ground are general tractor trailers that house required equipment for the airship including small portable fuel trucks as vehicles beyond the mooring truck aren’t allowed to approach the airship. Additional trucks include maintenance trucks and a bus to transport crew around town.
While on the ground, the airship is only moored in the front by truck with a retractable mooring mast station, leaving the sway back and forth at the discretion of the wind. Unlike the blimps of the past, there are no mooring lines to keep the blimp in place while on the ground. Wheel tracks on the ground show the extent of the aircraft’s movements.
The Goodyear Blimp truly does highlight the majesty of airship travel, an aspect of aviation that has been long lost. It wasn’t even 100 years ago that one could cross the Atlantic on an airship, making the journey from Europe to America in just a few days in an ultra-luxurious cruise ship in the sky. Even the U.S. military operated Zeppelin airships.
While the days of airship travel may be long gone, the Goodyear Blimp remains and can be seen flying high at a sporting event near you.
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