The blimp industry is changing, right over our noses

Later this month, Goodyear will launch its newest airship, the 246-foot, 10-ton Wingfoot Three, out of a hangar in Akron, Ohio. It’s a big deal, and not just in the literal, bigger-than-most-jumbo-jets sense.

It’s the culmination of a seven-year effort to break from the company’s century-long tradition of blimp-making and to adopt sleek, modern airships designed by Germany’s Zeppelin conglomerate. In short, Goodyear is getting out of the blimp business.

The most impressive part? Goodyear has undertaken the biggest U.S. airship-pilot training program since the Second World War. And that’s huge, because airships are tricky — even veteran pilots need a year or more to learn the ropes.

Very few of them have. Only 128 people are qualified to fly airships in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Aside from contractors and experimental pilots, we count that about 17 of them are paid to do it full time. And 13 of them fly for Goodyear.

The others fly for AirSign, which has operated the blimps advertising MetLife and DirecTV. AirSign operates only one ship at present, but it has 14 other blimps and a pool of trained pilots on standby.

There are always a coupledreamers on the fringe, but the modern airship business is the ad business. Blimps are glorified billboards that double as the smoothest aerial camera platforms around. It’s the basis of a symbiotic relationship: Goodyear and AirSign provide aerial shots of live events, and in exchange broadcasters shout out their blimps on air.

“There’s not a sporting event that I have not televised,” said Terry Dillard, AirSign’s chief pilot. “And that includes the swamp buggy races down in Naples, Florida.”

The new ships are as big as a Boeing 747 and at least as difficult to fly. So when Goodyear moved away from homegrown blimps to honest-to-goodness Zeppelins, it had to retrain most of the nation’s full-time airship pilots.

The Goodyear blimp flies overhead during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The Zeppelins are made by a descendant of the company that brought the world the Hindenburg, but don’t panic. They haven’t filled airships with flammable hydrogen for about 80 years. These days, blimps (vast rubberized envelopes that get their shape from the gas inside) and Zeppelins (semi-rigid airships with an aluminum and carbon-fiber skeleton) are both lifted by helium.

In a triumph of public relations over pedantry, the company refers to its new Zeppelins as “Goodyear Blimps,” rather than the more accurate “Goodyear Semi-Rigid Dirigibles.” We’ve followed their lead and relaxed our language somewhat as well.

Tiremaker Goodyear had been building airships since 1911. It sold hundreds of blimps and balloons to the armed forces during the world wars, but it hasn’t exactly been a growth industry in the years since — until last year, it was still using a model of blimp that first flew in 1972.

It made sense to ditch the legacy blimps. The faster, more maneuverable Zeppelins provide smoother coverage of more events. They don’t lose as …read more

Source:: Nationalpost – News


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