CARSON – The Goodyear Blimp bobbles a few feet of the ground, awaiting one of its final takeoffs.
“We’re coming off the mast,” pilot Bill Bayliss announces, as the 192-foot blimp is freed from its mooring.
The Spirit of America will rise above the hustle-and-bustle of I-405 one last time on Monday, and cruise toward Tustin’s aging World War II blimp hangar.
Five days later, the blimp will emerge as five tons of museum exhibits, recyclable rubber and spare parts.
“It’s the end of an era,” Bayliss says of Goodyear’s plans to upgrade its fleet of three older blimps, in operation since 1969, to modern airships.
On a recent morning, 12 men hold down the Spirit of America with ropes and handholds.
“The most dangerous time is when you’re close to the ground,” says Bayliss, 30, of Redondo Beach, guiding last-minute preparations for his flight to the recent Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
Ground crew members load four 25-pound bags of ballast; they remove a four-step ladder hanging from the gondola; the crew chief signals A-OK.
“They’re going to lift us up … and here we go!”
A blimp is born
Man has flown hot-air balloons since the 1700s – often for war.
In 1794, the French used them to observe British troop movements in the Battle of Fleurus.
In 1861, the Union army used them to scout Rebel troop movements during the Battle of Bull Run.
World War I was no different – except balloons had evolved into blimps and zeppelins.
Both are considered dirigibles, which are self-powered, steerable, lighter-than-air craft. Blimps maintain their shape by gas pressure alone, while zeppelins use internal framing to maintain their shape.
Goodyear emerged from World War I with more than a reputation for making tires. It built a 400-foot blimp hangar in Akron, Ohio, where the company produced 822 observation balloons and 39 blimps for the U.S. military.
Worldwide, the race was on to build an airline service of dirigibles to become the ocean liners of the sky – airships that could carry passengers across the Atlantic in less than three days.
The race did not go as planned.
In 1930, a British airship crashed in France, killing 48. In 1933, Goodyear’s Akron blimp crashed in the Atlantic, killing 73. In 1935, the Macon plunged into the Pacific, killing two (79 were rescued at sea).
The Hindenburg zeppelin finally made transatlantic airship travel a reality.
On May 6, 1937, a throng of photographers, newsreel cameras and a live radio broadcast awaited the Hindenburg’s arrival from Germany to Lakehurst, N.J. As the airship started to dock with its mooring mast, a spark ignited 7 million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen inside.
The airship collapsed in a fireball, killing 36 people – and any hope for a transatlantic fleet of dirigibles.
By this time, however, Goodyear had established a side project that would alter its future.
In 1925, the company had launched a 105-foot long blimp named Pilgrim that was unique in two ways.
One, it used nonflammable helium rather than hydrogen. And two, it was not a passenger airship. It was more of a flying billboard.
No one knew it yet, but the Pilgrim was the first of what we now call the Goodyear Blimp.
Up, up and away
Flying these old dirigibles requires a mathematician’s brain and an athlete’s body.
After liftoff, Bayliss maneuvers the airship to quickly rise above the 27-acre blimp base that’s been home to Spirit of America since it was christened 8,000 flights and 13 years ago.
To control envelope pressure, Bayliss pulls toggles over his head to manually release air from the ballonets – two balloons inside the larger envelope of helium – as we rise higher and higher.
To steer, he steps on a foot pedal attached to a 110-foot-long steel cable that pivots the rudder, the size of a barn door.
Meanwhile, he cranks what looks like a wheelchair wheel beside his seat to engage another steel cable that raises the rear elevator to guide us upward.
Nothing is electronic. We’re talking pulleys, levers, cables, cranks, ropes, bags of lead shot, even a liquid manometer in the cockpit – all a throwback to 1935, when the concept for this airship was designed.
Yet on takeoff, we can out-climb a 737, Bayliss boasts, proud of this rare old bird.
Planes can climb at a 15degree angle, Bayliss explains. But a blimp can climb at twice that angle – so steep that it momentarily feels like we might stall and plummet to earth. But we can’t – we’re lighter than air.
Even Air Force training pilots, who have ridden as passengers, freak out at this steep angle of ascent, Bayliss says, zooming up to 1,500 feet altitude in a matter of seconds before leveling off.
Once he does, it’s like riding on a cloud. Suddenly we’re floating on air – on $80,000 worth of helium, actually – my elbow poking out the window as we chug along at 30 mph toward the coast.
Putting on a show
The Goodyear Blimp is not one blimp. It is more than 300 blimps over the course of 90 years.
In 1932, the Volunteer hovered over the L.A. Coliseum to provide radio coverage of the Summer Olympics.
In 1955, the Enterprise hovered over the Rose Parade in Pasadena, providing the first live U.S. transcontinental broadcast from an aircraft.
In 1989, the Columbia hovered over earthquake damage in San Francisco during the World Series.
Goodyear blimps have flown over 27 Super Bowls (although since 9/11, they no longer can fly overhead during the game). They cover the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500. They cover indoor events like the Oscars, Emmys and Los Angeles Lakers games.
“You know what they say: It isn’t a big game unless the blimp is there,” Bayliss says, as we putt-putt down the coast with our shadow – he calls it the “blimp shark” – trailing on the water below.
Bayliss is one of four pilots and more than 20 crew members who fly, repair and maintain the Spirit of America in Carson.
Goodyear now operates two older (GZ-20A) models and one new technology, or NT, model, Wingfoot One, introduced last year. After Spirit of America retires this week, her twin sister ship, Spirit of Innovation, from Florida, will replace her until the next NT model comes online in about two years.
The new airships are longer, sleeker, faster and significantly easier to fly – with three engines (instead of two) that pivot to a vertical position, making takeoff and landing much easier. Their controls bring blimp piloting from the mechanical age to the computer age
That’s good. But Bayliss will miss all this “seat of the pants” piloting that requires both arms, both legs and both sides of his brain accounting for the smallest shifts in air temperature, wind direction, altitude, superheat, gas usage, weight change and envelope pressure.
“A lot of this is purely feel,” he says, arching his back to push down the rudder pedal for a turn, then spinning the elevator wheel forward to bring us down.
We descend to 400 feet altitude, just off the Huntington Beach Pier.
“Now we’ll put on a show for them,” he says, reversing engines and hovering off the end of the pier.
His hand shoots out the window.
Down below, people excitedly wave back – at a flying billboard.
End of the line
It will take five days to decommission the Spirit of America in the Tustin blimp hangar.
Crew members will secure the blimp’s nose spindle to a portable mast and tie down the silver-blue-and-gold envelope in 14 places. They’ll remove the hardware including the gondola, engines, tailfin, radar and 3,780 (message display) LED lights. Then they’ll open a 25-foot-long seam on top of the envelope to release nearly 200,000 cubic feet of helium.
The gondola will go to the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino. Spare parts will be saved. Much of the envelope – a neoprene-and-polyester fabric as thin as a T-shirt – will be cut into pieces and sent to Trash for Teaching, which reuses discarded items for educational purposes.
By next week, all that will be left are memories – including the recent month-long farewell tour up and down the West Coast.
“Sometimes you see kids run outside the house in the middle of nowhere,” Bayliss says. I’ve seen cars pull over and people get out to take pictures and wave.
“Sometimes, when we see people stop on the side of the road to watch us, we’ll do a quick circle around and wave.”
Almost every stop, he says, draws a crowd. At one small airport in Northern California hosting an air show, people assumed the blimp was part of the show and ran across an active runway to see it.
His most often asked question? “How do I get a ride?”
“Unfortunately, our schedule doesn’t allow us to give rides to the public,” he says. “It’s corporate-invitation only.” That means most of the 30,000 people who’ve flown on the Spirit of America over the last 13 years were Goodyear tire dealers, manufacturers or sellers. It’s the company’s way of saying thank you.
Not only riding on the Goodyear Blimp is rare.
“There are 300 or 400 astronauts,” Bayliss says. “But there are only about 30 active blimp pilots in the world.”
Still, he stresses, the blimp is the true celebrity. And it takes the entire team to keep it flying. Every takeoff, every landing employs a team of about 15. And whenever they travel, the same team carpools along – never more than a half-hour away in case the blimp must make an emergency landing.
Two hours after takeoff, Bayliss approaches the Carson blimp pad. As we descend, he checks the American flags at IKEA and Sears, happy to see the sea breeze holding light and steady. Below us, the crew rushes to position, ready to grab bowlines and handrails.
Thump. The blimp bounces on a single wheel, the gondola rocks to the right and then steadies.
“That’s special,” Bayliss says. “It’s so much fun I don’t like to call it a job.”
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