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