August 4, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: We were flying circuits around the traffic pattern on the north side of Long Beach Daugherty Field. My student, Paul, was learning to land his wife’s Piper Cherokee from the right seat; he wasn’t a licensed pilot, but wanted to know how, just in case he might have to land it someday. Suddenly the controller in the tower called out traffic to us, telling us to watch out for two Goodyear blimps. I’d been treated to sightings of a Goodyear blimp in both day and nighttime views, and have childhood memories of it’s moving lights displaying advertisements overhead in the night sky, when I’d listen to whirring, humming engines, such a distinct sound that I knew what it was before I stepped outside and looked up. But now, blimp formation flying, that wasn’t something I’d seen before. This was something special for the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Three Goodyear blimps share the appearance duties throughout North America; one based in Florida, one in California and one at the company’s headquarters in Akron, Ohio – that’s the one that used to be kept in Spring, Texas – covering sporting events and serving as a billboard adrift.
The ground crew doesn’t have much difficulty keeping up with its 50 mph progress. One blimp pilot who was flying cross-county happened upon a Little League game in a small town 1,000 feet below. The pilot stopped the engines right overhead and shouted down at the players asking them the score.
Linda: In my hometown, the rumble of the blimp’s Lycoming engines signaled the coming of auto racing, all month long, at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I, too, knew even before spying it in the sky that it had come to be part of the tradition and heartbeat of Indy in May. Upon moving to this part of the country I felt a little bit of the familiar had been waiting here to greet me when I first saw that blimp tethered at its base along I-45.
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company has been sailing blimps since 1928, and from the beginning, until 1987 each one has been named after America’s Cup champion yachts. Since then, the company has polled the public for names on new models, the latest of which has been dubbed Wingfoot One. With a top speed of 70 mph it’s a real hotrod.
Mike: During the launch ground crew members wrestle with the ship, pulling it from its mooring mast and turning it into the wind. Then they hoist the pudgy thing shoulder high and slam it back onto the ground. The single over-sized and over-inflated tire works like one of those bouncy balls we hopped along on as kids, springing it back into the air. The pilot pours the coals to its engines and pitches the nose up so high you think it will slide back onto its tail, but gravity is overcome, although ascent seems painfully slow.
Blimps belong to a category of aircraft called Airships, characterized by lighter-than-air gas that keeps them aloft. Some airships have a ridged frame, as did the Hindenburg. Those are called dirigibles. The old blimps of our growing years did not have a framework in them, but the new ones have semi-ridged frames, so technically they are not really blimps. However, it appears Goodyear still wants to call it a blimp, and that’s understandable. Saying "Goodyear Dirigible" sounds like a tire going over small, rattling speed bumps.