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Fri, Jul 27, 2007

Spirit Of Goodyear Blimp Returns To Oshkosh After 20 Years

...And ANN Got A Ride!

by ANN Correspondent Aleta Vinas

As a journalist you can generally get places others can’t... and other times, it’s just luck. In that vein, new Aero-TV Video Journalist Peter Riley and I recently scored a ride in the Goodyear Blimp at Oshkosh 2007. I would like to pay homage to the television news crew who cancelled to make our ride possible.

As if that wasn't enough luck... I then found one of the five pilots rotating throughout the week is an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Alumni. You give the secret Embry-Riddle handshake and you’re chatting like friends, learning the intricacies of being a blimp pilot. I am polishing my resume.

Matthew St. John graduated with a BS degree in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle in 1996 and even though one of the Goodyear blimps is stationed at Pompano Beach, FL where many days of touch and go’s are done, St. John never thought about becoming a blimp pilot.

After graduation St. John had difficulties finding a flying job so he went to Jacksonville, FL and fell back on an old hobby -- sailing. He was teaching young kids to sail at a yacht club.

“I ran into an old friend of mine and he asked how come I never thought about blimps?” The friend worked for an airship company and provided St. John with the contacts and info he needed.

The transition from airplane to blimp “was a little weird," according to St. John. “You learn to fly with the pedals, you‘re doing yaws left and right.” To climb and dive the pilots use a large elevator wheel at the side of the seat. In a blimp helium pressure is important “we watch helium pressure like an airplane pilot would watch an airspeed indicator.” The helium pressure is maintained through inflation and deflation of ballonets one located in the nose and tail filled with air.

“One of my favorites was learning how to land a blimp without any elevators,” comments St. John. “You can do that with the ballonets, if you leave your power set you can actually put a little air in the nose to bring the nose down and as you start to get closer to the ground you can put a little more air in the tail. Then you learn how to dump helium, in this case, to make yourself a little bit heavier for the ground rollout for the crew to pick you up.”

Maneuvering on the ground is one of the most critical phases of flight -- the one gondola wheel has no brakes, and you use asymmetrical thrust to maneuver to help the crew on the ground. “We minimize our ground time, once we get off the ground back up in the air we’re in our safe zone,” says St. John. This is the opposite of other craft.

There is no blimp simulator, which presents a bit of a problem. Training takes place in the blimps. “There’s only one set of controls so whoever the instructor is sitting on the right side he’s probably sweating bullets while teaching the student how to land and it’s a very slow process,” St. John jokes.

Blimp training varies anywhere from 4 months to a year depending on the schedule. If there are TV event coverage or VIP’s training gets put aside. Blimp pilot openings are rare, and they stay within the company.

The Goodyear Blimp has taken almost 20 years to get to Oshkosh -- no, it’s not really that slow. The 192 foot long, 60 foot tall, blue, silver and yellow behemoth cruises at a brisk 30 mph in the range of 1,000 to 3,000 feet AGL.

Most of the time viewers see the blimp over a stadium, this week at Oshkosh, while not flying around visitors will be able to look at the Spirit of Goodyear up close. Pioneer Airport by the EAA Museum will be it’s home for viewers.

The last visit by one of Goodyear’s icons was 1988. The Spirit of Goodyear wasn’t even born then. Spirit of Goodyear came into service in March 2000. It makes its home at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake Airship facility in Suffield, OH. The creation of a blimp takes six months and life expectance is 12 to 14 years. It takes 202,000 cu ft of helium to inflate her girlish figure and less than three hours to do it.

What happens to a blimp when it’s ready to retire? Blimp pilots are comedians. “We got a big farm, up there at Wingfoot Lake we just let it go up there and run around for the rest of its days.” St. John gets serious and explains each gondola is taken out of service and rebuilt and refurbished from the ground up at the Wingfoot Lake facility. There’s always one in rotation waiting for the next envelope.

The naming of their blimps is a very serious and personal business. Each name represents something important to Goodyear or the name is chosen to bring recognition to a proud tradition. The Spirit of Goodyear name was chosen to honor the employees of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Goodyear’s current US blimp fleet consists of three ships; Spirit of America based in City of Carson, CA; Spirit of Goodyear based in Akron, OH; and Spirit of Innovation based in Pompano Beach, CA.

Safety is utmost on the flight and on the ground in preparation for the flight. St. John keeps the group in a compact herd as he constantly eyes the blimp as it comes in for a landing, shifting us as necessary to make for a quick ingress but far enough to avoid any of the cables used to hold the blimp down.

The airship is not tied down or even stopped when passengers are let in or out. There are almost two dozen ground support personnel “holding the blimp on the ground.” Please picture a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon with less people... and way more balloon.

As we were ushered to the stairs they move to and fro a bit, reminding me of the moving staircase at a carnival funhouse. Juggling microphone, camera and reporter pad I plop not so gracefully into the co-pilot seat. I didn’t scam the co-pilot seat because of the Embry-Riddle “handshake”, -- since the blimp is flying one pilot operations, someone gets to sit there and I asked.

The pilots work in shifts and St. John stays on the ground to herd the next lucky group to the “staging” area. Greg Poppenhouse is our pilot for this flight. Poppenhouse is Pilot-In-Charge, also known as Chief Pilot. We don our headsets to cut the noise and be able to converse. It is quite noisy in the blimp; the engines and propellers are right outside the gondola.

The blimp has a unique take-off -- the ground crew pretty much bounces it into the air. Boing, boing and away we go pitching up at an angle fixed wing prop planes never dream of. Poppenhouse never even needs to talk to the tower, the blimps route is prescribed and the tower knows the boundaries and it is away from any of the airport traffic. Of course, Poppenhouse monitors the frequencies, just in case. We level off and Poppenhouse shows us a bit more of the nose high and low attitudes. He mentions if we feel a bit queasy to go ahead and fasten up those seat belts. Jokes on us, there are no seatbelts; apparently a comedic talent is a must for blimp pilots.

The 20 minute flight was jaw-dropping, the view was wonderful. We cruised at about 20 mph and watched the cars passing us. Even an LSA could speed past us in a race but it just didn’t matter. Lumbering along in a blimp is just an experience all its own. These days most of us are in rush mode, a blimp ride pulls you into laid back mode. We circled back over the field and the expanse of AirVenture unfolded in slow motion below.

We angled toward the ground at the V configuration of the ground personnel, the V formation serves as a personal windsock to the pilot.

St. John says “Everybody shares the same passion for these big aerial ambassadors.” I would like to add, especially once you taken a ride in one.

By the way... we have a VJ looking to luck out into a ride in a Black Hawk...

FMI: www.goodyearblimp.com


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