New blimp by Goodyear takes shape

SUFFIELD TOWNSHIP – That gigantic, iconic image routinely seen floating above sports stadiums nationwide is about to get a facelift.

At an equally gigantic aircraft hangar tucked unexpectedly among rolling acres of farms and state game lands in southwest Portage County, workers for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. last week were working slow and steady on the internal framework of what soon will be the newest face of the company.

Construction of a new $24 million faster, larger airship has been under way since March and is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Friday, company officials opened the hangar to members of the media for a rare, up-close glimpse of the aircraft from both the ground and the air.

Commonly referred to as the “Goodyear Blimp,” the new airship will replace the aging Spirit of Goodyear aircraft housed at the hangar, several miles east of the tire maker’s Akron world headquarters. Ultimately, the company’s entire fleet of three airships will be replaced. The other two are housed in California and Florida, company officials said.

Nancy Ray, Goodyear’s director of Global Airship Operations, described the work as a “major project” representing “a strong investment in Goodyear’s airship program, helping to ensure that Goodyear will remain at the forefront of aerial broadcast coverage and support.”

Friday, workers were moving toward that goal with work on the aluminum and carbon fiber framework and beginning the process of stretching thick polyester DuPont Tedlar film known as the “envelope” over each metal truss. When complete, the 246-foot blimp will be filled with nearly 300,000 cubic feet of helium.

The aircraft is being built by teams from Goodyear and German zeppelin manufacturer ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik. The result, Ray said, will be the only Zeppelin model airship in North America.

While the color scheme will remain the same, Ray said the airship will have a slightly different design and will be longer and sleeker than existing blimps. It will replace the 12-year-old Spirit of Goodyear blimp.

The new model will be driven by modern technology making it easier for the company’s 15 pilots to maneuver in wind and requiring fewer people on accompanying ground crews. As it is, 21 crew members are assigned to each aircraft, and the blimp never travels any great distance without an accompanying ground crew driving directly beneath it.

Aviation is not new for the company. Ray pointed out the company started at the dawn of aviation, building the existing hangar in 1917, and launching the first blimp in 1919. Before that, the company had built aircraft for use by the U.S. Navy during World War I, said pilot James Kosmos.

During a media flight Friday, Jerry Hissem piloted the mammoth, helium-filled Spirit of Goodyear seemingly with ease, chatting comfortably and waving his left arm out of the open window. At the same time he maintained constant legwork and manipulation of cockpit levers and controls. His focus increased as he maneuvered against the wind current during landing and takeoff, communicating frequently with the ground crew about shifts in the wind.

Earlier, Airship Operations Chief Pilot Greg Poppenhouse said his job is enjoyable because of the diversity. “Everyday is different,” he said, whether it’s a day trip to a Cleveland Indians game, a more lengthy trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series or short flights as part of a non-profit event, Poppenhouse said.

Goodwill events generating support for non-profit organizations are one part of the operations’ business model, Ray said. The company’s airship operations do not turn a profit for the company, but rather generate significant value through visibility at major events, on-camera exposure, store promotions and goodwill generated through support of non-profit organizations, she said.