Of all the old and strange creatures still roaming this earth, the biggest and rarest by far are the Goodyear blimps, Mayflower and Columbia—two gas-filled gypsies that wander around the country making friends, championing worthy causes and appearing frequently on television. Although these two motor-powered gasbags cruise at only 35 miles an hour and require more tender loving care than most men are willing to give their ailing mothers, they somehow manage to turn up here, there and almost everywhere.
In good weather and in foul, one of the two Goodyear blimps is likely to be found hanging above some large sports event somewhere in the country—a friendly giant seemingly fascinated by the contest being waged by Lilliputians in the arena below. Last June, when Lee Trevino, the happy pauper-prince of golf, won the U.S. Open in Rochester, a Goodyear blimp was on hand.
Last May, when Dancer's Image did or did not win the Kentucky Derby, a Goodyear blimp was overhead. At the Indianapolis 500 two years ago, when the whining turbine car driven by Parnelli Jones died a few miles from the finish, a Goodyear blimp was hovering above, bulging with pride as A.J. Foyt went on to win in a piston clunker equipped with Goodyear tires.
Last Memorial Day a blimp was again in attendance at the Indianapolis 500 as Bobby Unser outlasted the turbines to make it two in a row for Goodyear rubber. The blimp Columbia was at the Rose Bowl this past New Year's Day when OSU put down USC. Two weeks later, when Joe Namath and the Jets turned the professional football world upside down in the Super Bowl, the blimp Mayflower was there—watching and sharing TV time.
March 17, 1969
Between such major sports events and important civic functions, the bumptious blimps frequently show up at clambakes or company outings, where they are the life of the party. If the weather is fair, the blimps simply settle down in a nearby cornfield or pasture and take picnickers up, six at a time, for half-hour rides. (Some people do not like to ride in blimps, but after a couple of beers at a company outing, just about everybody wants to climb aboard.)
With no advance notice, the wandering blimps often drop out of the blue to spend a night at some small-town airport, bringing joy to spectators of all ages. Because the children in small towns have often seen the blimps in miniature on television, they are thrilled to see the real thing, life-size, monstrous, right in their own backyard. At the sight of the blimp, adults may nostalgically remember their own childhoods, 30 and 40 years ago, when everyone poured out into the schoolyard to look up at the Akron, the Macon, or one of the other great silver dirigibles of yesterday.
Because they are so slow, the Goodyear blimps are often hard put to keep every date on their crowded social calendar. Consider, for example, a typical odyssey of the blimp Mayflower this past December. On Christmas Day the Mayflower was serving as an aerial platform for ABC television at the North-South football game in Miami, and it was scheduled to collaborate again with ABC at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 28. On the morning after Christmas, many Americans were simply lounging around, recovering from their Yuletide cheer, but there were a number of ordinary—and a few extraordinary—travelers on the move. The fastest travelers that morning were the famous Apollo 8 trio, Borman, Lovell and Anders, who had given the moon a few whirls and were homeward bound along a narrow corridor in space, doing about 3,700 miles an hour and accelerating all the time. Without much doubt the slowest of all the air travelers that morning were Goodyear Pilots Joseph Whelan and Richard Esh, who were poking their way up the Florida coast aboard the blimp Mayflower.
As the air waves crackle with news of the records being set by the gallant Apollo crew, all that Pilots Whelan and Esh are hoping is that they can get their blimp from Miami to Jacksonville without an overnight stop. In the first half hour aloft, Pilot Whelan is holding his blimp steady at an altitude of 200 feet and about 200 feet offshore. Judging by the smoke from a burning trash dump, he knows he is bucking about an eight-mile-an-hour wind. Noticing that sea gulls and terns are overtaking the blimp, Pilot Whelan says dourly, "It's going to be one of those long days."
By 9:25, exactly an hour after takeoff, the Mayflower has traveled 22 miles and is coming up on Fort Lauderdale. Dick Esh calls the local airport. "Fort Lauderdale tower," he says, "this is Goodyear blimp November One Alpha."
"Hello there, blimp One Alpha" the tower replies cheerily.
"We're five miles southeast of the airport at 200 feet," Esh reports.
"You're at what altitude?" the tower asks incredulously.
"We're at 200 feet," Esh repeats. "We would like to proceed through your zone northbound along the beach."
"Roger," the tower answers. "That is approved."
As the blimp moves through the Fort Lauderdale control zone, back in Miami Mr. Albert Royce, president of the Royce Chemical Company of East Rutherford, N.J., is seated aboard a 727 jet, ready for takeoff and fully confident that, in almost no time at all, the plane will carry him to a safe landing in either Newark or Havana. As Royce's jet roars into the sky, 20 miles to the northeast, Marcia Esh, the wife of Goodyear Pilot Dick Esh, is motoring with her 2½-year-old daughter Melissa up Florida's Sunshine State Parkway in a sassy red Chevrolet Impala Super Sport. Even if little Melissa dawdles as usual over lunch, Marcia is confident that she will get to Jacksonville well before her husband Dick gets down out of the sky in the poky blimp.
One hour later, Marcia Esh has covered 60 miles in her Chevrolet. In the same period National Airlines has carried passenger Albert Royce 560 miles, and the spaceship Apollo has brought Astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders 3,950 miles closer to home. In the same hour the blimp Mayflower has crawled 29 miles up the Florida coast.
Although in spirit it is a gypsy, a blimp possesses some of the ingrained reluctance of an ordinary jackass and the stubbornness of an Andean llama. There is no way, simply no way, of making it go faster or of making it carry more than it is accustomed to carry. The blimp Mayflower is 160 feet long and has a maximum diameter of 51 feet. Under usual conditions, the 147,300 cubic feet of helium in its envelope can lift about 9,200 pounds. Since the envelope itself, and the cabin slung under it, plus the two 150-horsepower engines and all the fixed instrumentation and other essentials weigh about 7,700 pounds, the useful lift of the huge beast is 1,600 pounds at most.
Pilot Joe Whelan, adequately dressed for flying, weighs 230 pounds, and Pilot Dick Esh weighs 170. The weight allowance remaining for fuel, baggage and passengers, therefore, is about 1,200 pounds. On the journey to Jacksonville, Whelan and Esh had one nonpaying passenger aboard: 28-year-old James Newcombe, a former third-string University of Georgia football player, who is employed by Goodyear as advance planner and field manager of the Mayflower. Although Jim Newcombe has the same sort of uncontained zeal for blimping that devout Moslems have for Mecca, he unfortunately weighs 220 pounds. Because there was also about 200 pounds of excess baggage aboard, the Mayflower was obliged to leave Miami with only 125 gallons (roughly 750 pounds) of gasoline in her tank—not enough to make it safely to Jacksonville without a fuel stop at Fort Pierce.
In this miraculous age, when a run-of-the-mill, 48-ton commercial superjet can carry more than 14 tons of paying passengers and luggage, why, for heaven's sake, is the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company still fooling around with slow gasbags that carry so little and cost $600,000 a year to operate?
Why? Because there is a great deal of value to be derived from displaying a very large and very appealing object that moves very slowly in an age when everything else is going so fast that it is little more than a blur. Although by comparison to everything else traveling through the air, the Goodyear blimp is truly a featherweight of mediocre ability, it packs quite a wallop emotionally. By its very shape and easy manner in the sky the blimp suggests contentment to people who in this frantic day have almost forgotten how good it is simply to loiter and linger. As long as there is a blimp in the sky, people will be waving up at it, photographing it and wanting to ride in it. On the losing side of football stadiums, gloomy spectators will glance up to the blimp for solace and reassurance. Winners will see it as a serene omen. And as long as people feel that way, the name Goodyear will be unforgettable.
As the Mayflower plods northward to Jacksonville, children and adults, surfers and sunbathers, pier fishermen and surf fishermen wave at her, and Field Manager Newcombe waves back to one and all. By actual count, along one 45-mile stretch of coast between Fort Pierce and Melbourne, Newcombe waves to 418 people and three dogs. Along the same 45-mile stretch his blimp is photographed approximately 50 times.
While most people are enthusiastic about the blimp, the reactions of other creatures vary considerably. Some dogs ignore it. Some look up at it and yawn. A few trot after it, pointing their noses skyward as if trying to smell out the nature of the thing. Sea cows lolling in the shallows do not react at all when a blimp passes overhead, but stingrays and leopard rays tend to skitter about nervously. Porpoises often roll to one side, cocking an eye upward as if pondering what sort of large whale cousin it is that travels in the sky.
At 5:30, when the weak winter sun goes below land, the blimp is still 45 miles south of its destination. Although the evening is too cool for romancers and picnickers, the blimp is never alone for long as it moves through the darkness along the desolate beach. Hearing its throb and seeing its running lights through their picture windows, people step outdoors and wave. Dashing through two rooms in his haste to get outside, one small boy knocks over a chair and falls down twice.
At 7:20 p.m. Pilot Whelan at last brings the Mayflower down in Jacksonville. On their way north by car, Marcia and Melissa Esh have stopped once for gas, twice for comfort, and spent an hour at lunch. Although they also stopped for an hour at Marineland to enjoy the clowning porpoises and to watch a whale have its teeth brushed, they still reached Jacksonville an hour and a half ahead of the Mayflower. Albert Royce, the National Airlines passenger who left Miami an hour after the blimp, has long since landed in Newark, attended a meeting of the Passaic Boys' Club and had two business conferences in his own office. In the same 10 hours and 55 minutes that the Mayflower took to go 320 miles up the Florida coast, the space crew of Apollo 8 has traveled 45,690 miles down the dark path back to earth.
The morning of the big Gator Bowl game between Missouri and Alabama dawned wet, windy and miserable, and for a while it looked as if the Mayflower had come 320 miles for naught. In a heavy rain, the quantity of water constantly running off the blimp's broad back adds about 600 pounds. With a two-man television crew and equipment—and sufficient fuel to buck a 30-mile-an-hour wind for the length of a football game—a blimp cannot safely take on that much extra weight in useless rainwater. Luckily, by game time the rain stopped and the scowling clouds broke apart. By the middle of the second quarter the wind had dropped to about 25 miles an hour so that Pilot Frank Hogan was able to get the television crew over the Gator Bowl for the last half of the game. While Missouri was squashing Alabama, ABC used aerial shots from the Mayflower six times and gave television viewers five glimpses of the blimp itself. On each occasion Announcer Bill Flemming had something nice to say about the Goodyear gasbag. Considering that at least 100,000 people had seen the Mayflower on its way north, 68,000 more saw it at the game and another 15 million saw it on television, the journey seemed worthwhile.
For more than a hundred years, long before there was any winged machine, gas-filled dirigibles of one sort or another have been on the prowl. In the first half of this century big rigid Zeppelins, semirigid airships and nonrigid blimps made wondrous journeys and caught the public's fancy, but entirely too many of them were dismal failures. Indeed, when the whole history of lighter-than-air craft is examined dispassionately, when all "ifs" and "buts" are cast aside and the triumphs are weighed against the disasters, there is not much left on the credit side of the ledger except the excellent record of the Goodyear blimps flown by the U.S. Navy in World War II and the relatively modest, but almost flawless, performance of Goodyear's private blimp fleet.
During its first busy years in the airship business, Goodyear suffered one great personal tragedy. On July 21, 1919, before sufficient noninflammable helium was available, a hydrogen-filled Goodyear blimp, the Wingfoot Express, burned in the sky over Chicago. Three men aboard perished, and part of the flaming wreckage crashed through the skylight of a bank, killing 10 people. Since 1925, when Goodyear began using helium exclusively, only one pilot and one crewman have lost their lives. In both instances the Goodyear men died while overzealously trying to save their ships in violent weather.
In the past 43 years the Goodyear goodwill fleet has logged 6,098,119 miles and carried 591,048 passengers without an injury. Over the years a few women have ripped tight skirts climbing aboard the blimps. Pilot Joe Whelan once temporarily lost a passenger in midflight—a small Cuban boy who, for some reason, crawled under his seat to hide—but that has been about the worst of it.
At the start of World War II the U.S. Navy had 10 blimps. By the end of the war there were about 150 Navy gasbags in the air, most of them on antisubmarine patrol along the east coast of the Americas, from Maine all the way south to Rio. Although German and Italian subs sank 532 vessels in the western Atlantic, out of 89,000 ships convoyed by blimps, not one was lost. Last December when the Mayflower was in Jacksonville getting ready to fly over the Gator Bowl game, a gray-haired man walked onto the field. "My name is Falco," he said. "I was in the merchant marine four years in the war. We never worried when the blimps were hanging around us. This is the closest I've ever been to one. I'd just like to give it a pat for old time's sake."
During the war the Navy lost eight blimps in line of duty. A German sub shot one out of the sky in the Florida straits. While flying down to Rio at an altitude of 800 feet on a foggy night, another blimp ran into a 1,092-foot-high island that according to Army Air Corps charts (copied from old German charts) was supposed to be less than 100 feet high. On the U.S. West Coast, the Navy blimp L-8 met a strange end that no one has been able to explain fully. On an August morning in 1942 the L-8 took off from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for a routine three-hour patrol over the Pacific. At 7 a.m., an hour after lift-off, Pilot Ernest Cody radioed back that he was investigating an oil slick. Neither Pilot Cody nor his copilot, an ensign named Adams, was heard from or seen again. When their abandoned blimp was examined, the door was open and the throttles in idle position—the best guess is that, while leaning out the door dropping smoke flares to mark the oil slick, both men fell to their death. In any case, at 11:30 a.m. the Coast Guard sighted their blimp lying on the beach about five miles south of the Golden Gate. An onshore wind was buffeting the huge envelope against the palisade behind the beach. Before anyone could get to the blimp, the action of the wind dislodged its 325-pound depth charge. Thus lightened, the unmanned L-8 took off from the beach, drifted four miles inland and landed in a narrow street lined with two-story houses in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. After settling gently down on its single landing wheel, with perfect aplomb the unmanned blimp rolled a block up the street and came to a stop at an intersection. The L-8 could have been deflated, carted off and refilled, but volunteer firemen, not comprehending the nature of the beast, slashed the gas envelope open, believing that, since no one was in the cabin, there must be somebody up in the bag.
This summer a new, 192-foot-long Goodyear blimp, America, will go into operation. In winter the new ship will be based in Houston. The rest of the year, like Goodyear's other two gadabouts, it will wander hither and yon. While in all practical respects the new America will be the very latest thing in blimpery, it will have a certain haunting connection with the past. Although it has been renovated and refurbished, the cabin of the new America is the same cabin that was on the L-8.
The present-day Goodyear blimps engage in a wider variety of enterprises than those that were flying in the '20s and '30s, but they are more restrained in their behavior. For a fee, the early Goodyear blimps used to drag trailer signs advertising merchandise of all kinds and sometimes collaborated with kooky exhibitionists—the ultimate perhaps being a performer who, in the interest of promoting cleaner living, took a bath in a genuine bathtub suspended under a blimp. The present Mayflower has a complex panel of lights on each side that produce not only printed copy but also multicolored moving images, both realistic and psychedelic. Although any number of manufacturers and merchandisers would like to buy advertising time, Goodyear's billboard in the sky is not for hire. Indeed, the 976-pound flying night sign—or Skytacular, as its operators call it—is only used about 20% of the time to promote Goodyear enterprises. The Mayflower spends most of its hours aloft after dark notifying the populace of important local events and urging them to join worthy causes such as the Heart Fund, the March of Dimes and highway-safety campaigns.
Although in daylight hours the public usually sees the blimps at sports events or in transit, the Goodyear ships spend an equal amount of time taking passengers up for short tours and helping government agencies research programs. The FBI and the Treasury Department both use the blimps occasionally—and let us not ask why. State and local officials often go up in the blimps to study traffic snarls, to sample polluted air and to try to find answers to various other ills that plague heavily populated areas. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA, as it is better known—has used the blimps to help in a sonic-boom study project.
The new 192-foot America that will be emerging from its cocoon in Akron, Ohio early this summer will have a Skytacular sign bigger and better than the one on the Mayflower, and so will the new Columbia that is scheduled to replace the present Columbia before the end of the year. The night sign on the present Columbia is a relatively simple one that only permits words containing 10 letters or less to be flashed in sequence, but because it winters in Southern California where zealots and promoters abound, you can bet your life its services are constantly sought. Columbia's field manager, Terry Elms, spends a large part of each work week politely saying "no" to dreamers who do not know the meaning of the word. When his office phone rings, Elms never knows just what the next outlandish proposition is going to be. One man who calls in dearly wishes to suspend himself on a cable under the blimp and fly over the Watts district of Los Angeles to protest racial inequality. Another, a magician, wants to show the world that he can get out of a strait-jacket while hanging in the air. Another entrepreneur wants to take a jazz combo up and broadcast its noise over speakers on the ground, Lord knows why. A supermarket chain would like to throw Ping-Pong balls bearing sales messages out of the blimp. An enthusiastic Republican group wonders if it would be possible to attach an elephant's trunk and two large ears to the blimp. A Sunday-school teacher calls, asking if six pupils could be given a ride as a reward for perfect attendance. (This last request is the kind that Field Manager Elms might ordinarily honor, but, regrettably, at the time it was made, the blimp was collaborating with the American Cetacean Society in its annual count of gray whales during their winter migration to Baja California.)
Wherever it goes, each Goodyear blimp is followed by a large maintenance van and a bus carrying an 11-man ground crew, who must reach the appointed destination before the ship, not only to take its landing lines as it comes down, but also to set up the mast to which it will be moored. Ofttimes with a tail wind the blimp arrives at the next town before its ground support. In such cases, the pilot can do nothing except fly around, waving and making friends, until the ground crew pulls in. No destination is ever certain; no departure or arrival time is ever sure. A blimp may schedule an early-morning junket for important Goodyear customers. The customers show up on time, but if it is a cool, damp morning, they will not always leave on time. A single pilot will get into the blimp, lift it off and fly in circles for 10 or 15 minutes before coming back down to load on the passengers. What has the pilot been doing? He has been drying off the envelope, getting rid of 250 pounds of dew.
Out West, in the land of big mountains and strange winds, the blimp Columbia's life is very unpredictable, and its range peculiarly limited. Since the practical working height of the blimps is about 3,000 feet, it can never go to Denver, or for that matter, hardly anywhere else in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho or Montana. The whole area is simply too high in the sky.
Even in the lower country of the big West the Columbia does not always get where it is going. Pilot Lee Cermak remembers an attempt to cross west Texas. After clearing Van Horn Pass at an altitude of 5,400 feet, eastbound for the city of Midland, he recalls, "Suddenly ahead of me, clouds of dust. Whooee! That part of Texas makes its own weather. As far as I could see in front of me it was all dust. The ground crew radioed, asking me if I could make it to Midland. Ha. I answered them, 'Since it is 100 miles to Midland, and I have only 45 gallons of gas left, and I am using more than 15 gallons an hour, and since I am indicating an air speed of 50 miles an hour and I am not moving an inch over the ground, not one inch, it is my considered opinion that I cannot make it to Midland.'
"We went to Monahans, Texas, instead," Cermak remembers. "Yes sir, Monahans, Texas, one of those towns that has a sign by the road saying 'Welcome' on one side and 'Come Again' on the other. But it had an airport."
"I schedule a flight for photographers in San Diego," Columbia's Terry Elms says, "and when we get in the air, a fog moves in so thick you can't see 200 feet. Meanwhile, back in the Los Angeles basin the weather is beautiful, no smog at all, and every photographer in L.A. is clamoring to go up. Trying to arrange the Columbia's schedule even one day in advance," Elms continues, his voice getting a trifle shrill, "is like hitting a home run and taking off down the baseline to discover there isn't any first base."
Goodyear's crews have wandered so erratically and stopped at so many places they never intended to visit that they have a hard time remembering where they have been. If you ask any three members of the Mayflower's crew today where they went last year after the National Campers and Hikers Convention in Du Quoin, Ill., none of them will be able to say surely if it was Galesburg, Ill., Hibbing, Minn. or Winona, Wis. One of them may insist it was Winona, Minn. But you can be sure the Mayflower blimpmen will remember their trip to Boston in 1966, when they played the villain in a two-part musical tragedy. During the Mayflower's first night ride over Boston, 25,000 music lovers were enjoying a concert by the Boston Symphony at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the banks of the Charles River. The feature of the program was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which has been described as epitomizing the German composer's "visions by night." While the orchestra was working its way smoothly through this masterpiece, there appeared overhead quite a large and different kind of vision: the friendly Goodyear blimp, its engines throbbing and its night sign flashing. "PARDON OUR GLOW...IT'S NO UFO," the blimp's night sign said. "IT'S THE GOODYEAR BLIMP.... HOWDY DOWN THERE."
The next morning the switchboard in the Goodyear district office in Boston lit up. In no time at all the district manager, Rex Van Akin, was on the phone to Tom Allison, the Goodyear public-relations man who heads up the blimp operation in Akron. "Van Akin kept saying, 'Help, help, Tom. Do something,' " Allison remembers. Without waiting for the first irate letter to arrive, Goodyear went into action. By 9 a.m. the blimp was back in the air. By 9:30 it was over the band shell on the banks of the Charles, circling tight and circling wide, fixing the position with relation to other landmarks so that on future flights the pilots would be sure to give the band shell a wide berth. But, alas and alack, down below in the band shell, while the blimp circled above to pinpoint the scene of the previous night's crime, there was a morning concert for children going on. By noon the switchboard in the Goodyear district office was glowing again, and the next day the letters poured in.
Goodyear answered every letter, as is the company's custom. "The sole objective of our airship program for the past 45 years," a typical letter of, apology said, "has been to make friends for Goodyear. We want you to know that we appreciate your calling this unfortunate incident to our attention, and how sorry we are. We never go near a performance like that if we know it is going on. In Miami, for example, we always skirt the Parrot Jungle by a good distance for fear of scaring the birds."
Remembering all the right and wrong turns in the road that the blimps have made, all the detours required because of weather or freakish mischances, considering the many friends the blimps have made as planned and all those made here and there by accident, the man in charge of both joy and grief at Akron headquarters concludes that there is only one real problem involved in blimping around the country: for all their seeming zeal, the gasbags cannot make it to half the places that want them. "People see us on television so often," Allison said recently, "that they do not understand that we cannot go from where we are 1,000 miles to someplace else in an afternoon. The hardest job that I and the blimps' crews in Miami and Los Angeles have is refusing invitations and hoping the people we turn down still like us." Then, teetering on the brink of utter treason, Allison added, "Week in and week out I have to say 'No' to so many nice people that sometimes I almost wish the blimps belonged to Firestone."