After a takeoff run of about one foot, the attitude pitches up to 10, then 20, then 30 degrees. I know we can’t maintain this pitch angle very long, but the pilot holds the nose up with no apparent concern for impending disaster.
We’re pinned back in our seats as the aircraft climbs out at this ridiculous attitude. I glance over at the airspeed, and it reads 30 mph. I watch the attitude hold at what seems an impossible angle, waiting for the wing to stall.
Fortunately, there’s no chance of that happening, as this aircraft has no wings, and there’s no stall. This is a Goodyear airship, Spirit of America, and its pilots don’t have to worry about such silly considerations as angle of attack or stall. According to Goodyear pilot Jon Conrad, “We try to keep the pitch angle to a level where no one will get sick.”
I’m at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s Carson, Calif., blimp base to fly the airship, 77th in Goodyear’s long line of nonrigid airships. I’m a pilot who worships speed for its own sake; similarly, the blimp worships semi-hover. It’s an aircraft dedicated to the premise that the slower you fly, the more people will see you and the more people will read the Goodyear name on the side of this flying billboard.
Lest we forget, the race isn’t always to the Swift—or the Bonanza or the Mooney. Goodyear’s four blimps, three in the States and one in Europe, were created as fat, friendly, 190-foot-long goodwill ambassadors, intended to keep the company name in front of the public. To that end, speed is actually counterproductive.
The Spirit of America is the latest blimp to reside at Goodyear’s California base; it went into service in September 2002, showing the Goodyear colors all along the West Coast.
If the Akron, Ohio, company’s fleet of blimps have been seen by hundreds of millions, the number of folks who have earned a ride are a comparative minutia. Here in the United States, about a tenth of 1% of the population has been granted the opportunity to witness blimping from the inside looking out. (Aside from me, Editor Jessica Ambats can also count herself among this small group. Read Blimp My Ride from P&P July 2007.)
The airships are all outfitted roughly the same, seven seats in 2/2/3 configuration. Virtually every flight is full (who would pass up a chance to fly in the blimp?), and flights typically last about 45 minutes. The Spirit of America weighs 12,800 pounds fully loaded, though with the help of helium, the effective ground weight is typically only 100 to 150 pounds.
If you’re uneducated in the ways of powered, lighter-than-air machines, the preparation for takeoff is a little different than you may be accustomed to in a standard fixed-wing airplane. Because buoyancy is involved, it’s important to keep the airship’s weight as consistent as possible. To that end, three passengers from the previous flight disembark immediately after landing and three new passengers take their place. Then, the remaining passengers trade places with the three new ones. Finally, the new pilot comes aboard and relieves the last flight’s captain.
Once everyone is settled in and comfortable (seat belts aren’t necessary, by the way), the actual liftoff requires assistance from the ground crew. The 10-man team grips the handrails on the bottom of the gondola and lifts the airship as high as possible, then pulls down hard to bounce the blimp on the single landing gear directly beneath the cab. The trailing-beam suspension depresses practically to its limits, then rebounds as the crew simultaneously lifts as hard as possible (being careful to let go at the top).
As the pilot brings the two 210 hp Continental pusher engines to full power and rolls back the huge, floor-mounted, elevator control wheel, the aircraft begins an ascent more reminiscent of a directed hot-air balloon than an airplane. Rudder pedals provide an initial semblance of directional control, more as speed increases.
The blimp does practically everything (climb, cruise, descend) at 30 to 35 mph. Again, buoyancy contributes to climb and descent, so there’s less of a direct correlation between pitch and airspeed than you may be used to in an airplane. Overcoming drag is obviously a Herculean task, so even if you push both Continentals to the stops in level flight, the aircraft is unlikely to inch its way past 50 mph.
At 30 mph for cross-country travel, a long day is 10 hours, during which you’ll only manage to traverse 300 miles. Pilot Conrad said he’d made a trip from California to New York—it took 10 days.
During my flight, Conrad leveled at 1,500 feet and explained that there’s little reason for high-altitude cruising. In theory, the blimp has a ceiling of 10,000 feet, “but we don’t normally operate the airship much above 5,500 if we can avoid it,” says Conrad. “When we fly east across the Southwest, we usually travel the southern route, over Pheonix and Tucson and through El Paso, at an elevation of 4,100 feet. That’s typically our highest stop.”
Once we were established in level cruise, Conrad allowed me to take the controls for a half hour. With such a huge mass to move through the sky, the lead and lag are significant. You have to stay well ahead of the controls to keep the airship on altitude and heading. Reversible props allow you to stop in flight, even back up if you wish. You can also lower your side window and wave at folks on the ground.
Because I’d flown in the blimp before, I asked my favorite student pilot, Peggy Herrera, a passenger new to the experience, for her comments. “My overriding impression of the blimp is how incredibly slow and comfortable it is,” says Herrera. “There’s no seat belt, and once you’re established in cruise, it’s more similar to a car than an aircraft.
“Everything seems to happen in slow motion,” adds Herrera. “I’ve been training in a Piper Archer, and the practice area is on the same route the blimp flew on our demo flight. In training mode, the Archer only flies a little over 100 knots, but things still go by rather quickly for a student. In the blimp, I was able to see my emergency landing areas and checkpoints much easier as they drifted by at a third the normal speed. Turns don’t require any bank and, of course, without wings or ailerons, that’s logical. Still, it seems strange for a flying machine.”
Herrera is correct. The Spirit of America very well may be one of the most unusual flying machines in America. These days, there are a number of other blimps in the sky, nearly all of them advertising vehicles for products ranging from a TV channel (Nickelodeon) and a real-estate company (RE/MAX) to a film company (Fujifilm) and a furniture chain (Ikea).
Goodyear’s quartet of airships will probably always have the distinction of being the oldest and best-known of our friends, the blimps. (For a more in-depth discussion of blimps, try to find a copy of George Larson’s The Blimp Book.)
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at email@example.com.