Blimp My Ride
Cruising in Goodyear’s aerial ambassador
My foot pushes on the rudder pedal but nothing happens. I push harder. Still nothing. And so I stomp, hoping that the barn-door-sized rudder will finally budge. Like a large boat churning in open waters, the blimp enters a barely perceptible turn. It’s slow, but persistent, and so I step on the opposite rudder. Rather, I lift my body up and push with my entire weight on the opposite rudder. A long time passes before the blimp responds again.
We wander through an ocean of air, at the whim of the surrounding environment. The slightest updraft lifts the blimp, and I wrestle a giant wheel to the right of the pilot’s seat for elevator control and level flight. Again, it’s a physically demanding task, and sometimes it takes both of my untrained arms to have an effect on the 192-foot long and 202,700-cubic-foot airship.
Goodyear’s Spirit of America doesn’t have dual controls, so it’s a good thing that everything happens at a snail’s pace: cruise speed is 30 mph, and top speed is just 50 mph. Next to me in the seven-seat gondola, seasoned pilot Jon Conrad (with more than 6,000 hours in blimps) explains airship operations as we low-and-slow it through the Los Angeles Basin. Like a newly detailed car driving slowly around the block, we’re cruising to be seen. And we’re hard to miss: as night falls, more than 82,000 custom-made, high-brightness LEDs light up our left side.
En route to Santa Monica Airport, Jon takes the controls so he can demonstrate a low pass. Dives and climbs are at exaggerated angles of approximately 30 degrees, and I hold on to the seat (there are no seat belts). “Very nice; thank you!” beams the tower, and patrons of the on-field restaurant, Typhoon, gather on the deck to watch. At Whiteman Airport (15 nm away, but 35 minutes later), it’s my turn. While puttering along on final, and eventually short final, the runway strikes me as very narrow and we seem, well, relatively wide. “Are you sure about this?” I question Jon (visions of sideswiping the tower are unsettling). “How will other pilots in the pattern handle our slow speeds?” But he chuckles, “If you can’t see the blimp, then you shouldn’t be in the pattern.” After lots of rudder and wheel elevator, patience and anticipation, I’m exhausted but exhilarated after the world’s slowest fly-by.
“The blimp flies based on a hybrid of aerodynamics and aerostatics,” explains Jon. “As with a fixed-wing aircraft, we use aerodynamics to turn it and go up and down. But to maintain the shape of the blimp’s envelope, made from polyester fabric, we have a pressure system. Inside of that are two air chambers called ballonets that can be inflated or deflated as helium expands and contracts when the blimp rises and descends.” Powered by two 210 hp Continental IO-360 engines, the Goodyear blimp is equipped with custom-made, reversible-pusher Hartzell propellers. Empty weight is 12,840 pounds; when inflated with helium, however, the blimp weighs no more than 200 pounds.