Thursday, June 19, 2008
How To Blimp
Goodyear proves that low and slow can be fun
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).
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