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A History of the Goodyear Blimp
Hey there, blimpy boy! Flying through the sky so fancy free...
As a child growing up near New York City and the Meadowland Sports Complex in New Jersey, I was captivated by the sight of blimps gracefully drifting across the sky. No matter how many times I spotted one, the sense of wonder and fascination never faded. There is something inherently mesmerizing about these colossal airships. However, my admiration for these floating giants led me to question: What is the history behind the iconic Goodyear Blimp?
The Goodyear Blimps are a fleet of helium-filled airships operated by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. They have primarily served as advertising for the company, as filming platforms for televised sports, and as air assets by the military. The term "blimp" refers to a non-rigid airship, lacking an internal structure, relying on the pressure of lifting gas within the envelope to maintain its shape. Goodyear switched to semi-rigid airships in 2014, but continues to use the word “blimp” to describe them.
Inception and World War I
In 1898, as the United States basked in the glory of the Industrial Revolution, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company sought to diversify its ventures beyond tires and rubber. It was during this time that the concept of the Goodyear Blimp was conceived.
The roots of the Goodyear Blimp trace back to 1914 when Goodyear built its first observation balloons, serving as the precursors to the iconic airships. As the United States entered World War I in 1917, Goodyear received a call from the government to produce lighter-than-air vehicles for military purposes. The company's engineers designed and constructed several blimps for reconnaissance missions and various other wartime applications. During this time, the company established the Wingfoot Lake Airship Base near Akron, Ohio, solidifying its presence in the aviation industry.
The Growing Fleet
In 1919, Goodyear initiated its own airship fleet, marking the beginning of a legendary era. Over the next few decades, they would grow the fleet and not only boost awareness of the brand, but also of airship technology. A staple of the ever popular airshows of the time, the company would bring the blimps to the people, hovering over major events like the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Each blimp would be given a name, and each one was named after defenders of the America's Cup yacht race. Why? Goodyear's president at the time, Paul Litchfield, believed blimps could serve a similar purpose for those living inland as yachts did for coastal residents. Yet, here we all are, all these years later, living in a world with relatively few blimps in it.
Activity in World War II
During World War II, Goodyear's blimps played a crucial role in defending the United States. Existing blimps were transferred to the Navy. Airships, like the aptly named, Resolute, patrolled places like Los Angeles' harbor and became well-known to Angelenos.
Throughout the war, Goodyear manufactured numerous airships for the Navy, contributing to a total of 167 blimps built and deployed in five airship wings. These versatile airships conducted 56,000 operational flights and logged an astonishing 550,000 flight hours. Their long endurance and surveying capabilities made them invaluable to the Navy's efforts.
A plaque at the Wingfoot Lake facility stands as a tribute to the nine airship pilots and crew members who sacrificed their lives during World War II while contributing to the development of lighter-than-air crafts. Following the war, Goodyear continued to produce blimps for the Navy well into the 1960s.
As the war came to a close, Goodyear was making big plans for their blimps’ future. Not only would they continue to contribute to America’s airpower, but they could also be the future of transportation. Read all about it in this ad they produced near the end of the war.
In the 1940s, Goodyear's blimps underwent technological advancements, including record players and loudspeakers. My favorite early improvement was a reportedly very bright Neon-O-Gram light system, featuring neon light tubes, that displayed the company name. In 1966, animated nighttime advertising was introduced, boasting 1540 lights per side, enabling the display of colored moving text and figures. By 1996, some blimps were equipped with LEDs so bright that they could be read during the daytime.
TV and the Blimp
In the 1950s we had a massive increase in television viewing, and Goodyear Blimps played a pivotal role in enhancing the viewing experience. In 1955, Enterprise V became the first airship to provide aerial coverage of the Parade of Roses, thanks to equipment provided by the NBC Network. As we moved into the 1960s, Goodyear Blimps continued to capture the excitement of sporting events, often in color. By 1967, Goodyear began outfitting blimps with their own equipment, making them less dependent on television networks.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Goodyear and their Blimps became synonymous with major televised events, covering events like the Super Bowl, Indianapolis 500, Grand Prix Racing, Kentucky Derby, the Olympic Games, and World Series, among many others.
Blimp Flight Safety
The safety record of Goodyear Blimp flights is excellent, but like all things, it is not without risk. Unfortunately, we have seen several notable incidents over the years.
On July 21, 1919, the Wingfoot Air Express tragically caught fire and crashed, resulting in the loss of one crew member, two passengers, and ten bank employees.
In September 1990, the Columbia blimp had a near-collision with a radio-controlled model airplane, leading to a forced landing after sustaining damage.
The Spirit of Akron encountered control issues in 1999 due to improperly hardened metal splines, resulting in a crash with minor injuries to the crew.
On June 16, 2005, the Stars and Stripes blimp was caught in a thunderstorm, crashing into trees and powerlines, though there were no injuries.
The Spirit of Safety I, operated by Lightship Europe Limited in Goodyear livery, caught fire during a landing approach in 2011, leading to the pilot's heroic efforts to ensure passenger safety before perishing in the fiery wreck.
These incidents underscore the importance of ongoing safety measures and vigilance in blimp operations.
Can You Fly on the Goodyear Blimp?
Despite their iconic status, the Goodyear Blimps have maintained a strict policy regarding passengers. If you want to fly in one, you are most likely out of luck. Only corporate guests and members of the press have been allowed aboard, with no public rides offered. According to Goodyear:
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 our dealer relationships, winners of local charity auctions, local dignitaries or members of the media.
There was an exception, though. Because of a lease agreement with the city, for over 50 years, some public rides were offered at the Miami, Florida winter base on Watson Island. Sadly, this practice ceased in 1979 when the base was moved to Opa-locka, Florida.
So who does get a ride in the blimp? During the period when Goodyear supplied tires for IndyCar, it became a tradition for the pole position winner at the Indianapolis 500 to enjoy a ride on the blimp in the days leading up to the race. Additionally, winners of the World Championship races held annually in Akron, Ohio, as part of the All American Soap Box Derby, were awarded a ride on the blimp.
I am sure everyone who has had this opportunity has enjoyed this mostly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Most of us can only dream of getting the chance. Right, Homer?
The Official City Bird?
In the early eighties, Redondo Beach, CA was looking for a way to promote the city before the 1984 Olympics. I guess they happened to look up and spot the Goodyear Blimp.
They reached out to Goodyear to get their okay and in 1983 adopted the blimp as its official city bird. The move made headlines across the United States, but sadly did not appear to bring any Olympic events to the city.
Redondo Beach attempted to be included again when the Olympics are set to return in 2028, but was passed over for other locations. This time around, they did not appear to have pulled out their official city bird. They might want to give it a shot. Maybe this planning committee has more blimp fans?
The Goodyear Blimp on the Big Screen
In 1977, the Goodyear Blimp took on a menacing role in the thriller "Black Sunday." Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on Thomas Harris's novel, the film depicted a terrorist plot involving a Goodyear blimp as a weapon aimed at attacking the Super Bowl. Laden with deadly shrapnel and a massive bomb, the blimp became an audacious instrument of terror. The film's suspenseful atmosphere was amplified by the blimp's ominous presence as it hovered over the crowded stadium, showcasing the terrorists' daring scheme.
The Goodyear Blimp is not merely an advertising icon but a symbol of innovation, wartime service, and a unique vantage point for capturing memorable moments in sporting and broadcasting history. From its humble beginnings in the early 20th century to its continued role in modern entertainment, the Goodyear Blimp remains a cherished and enduring part of American culture. So, the next time you spot one of these graceful giants in the sky, remember to take a moment and appreciate its rich history.
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