Goodyear to replace fleet of iconic blimps

LOS ANGELES — The 33-acre grassy airfield in Carson, Calif., doesn't appear much bigger than a postage stamp when pilot Jon Conrad begins steering the 12,840-pound Goodyear blimp in for a landing.

"It looks a little different from this vantage point, doesn't it?" he says with a chuckle. "That doesn't seem like much room when you're landing an aircraft that's comparable to a Boeing 747."

The tight squeeze will get a little tighter in the coming years with this month's announcement that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. will once again replace its helium-filled fleet of three silver, blue and gold blimps with bigger, faster ones.

The Akron, Ohio, company said it would work with German manufacturer ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik to build three airships costing about $21 million each. Beginning in 2014, Goodyear will begin to swap out the three blimps, now based in Akron; Pompano Beach, Fla.; and Carson.

The plump Goodyear blimps have been a regular sight in Southern California since before World War II, when the U.S. Navy used them to keep an eye on the Pacific coast in case of an attack. Rarely is there a high-profile occasion in the region without it buzzing overhead.

"Some people would say that it isn't a complete Rose Bowl event without the Goodyear blimp," Pasadena, Calif., Mayor Bill Bogaard said. "It floats across the sky in a way that everybody enjoys. And it's slow enough that when you call your friends and family to take a look, it will still be there."

But if the current Goodyear blimp grabs attention, the new airships will be even more eye-catching.

At 246 feet, the replacements are 54 feet longer and can hit a top speed of 73 mph — compared with the current airships' 54 mph. They will have three propeller engines attached above the gondola, unlike the two noisy engines that currently flank the rear of the gondola.

Because they will have rigid skeletons, in this case made of aluminum and carbon-fiber, they will technically be zeppelins and not blimps. But rest easy; the airship will still be called the Goodyear blimp. It will carry 12 passengers — six more than today's blimps.

They're typically replaced every 10 to 15 years. The current blimp in Carson was built in 2001.

"It's like I'm getting a new car," said Conrad, 41, a onetime helicopter crop duster from Nebraska who is now Goodyear's head pilot at the airfield. "I'll enjoy showing it off."

Advertising value

Showing off the airship is the whole point.

Take, for example, the Super Bowl. Goodyear packs in a television cameraman and provides aerial shots — as long as ground crews snap some footage of the blimp during the game.

While companies are shelling out as much as $3 million for a 30-second commercial, Goodyear gets what amounts to a handful of 10-second spots just by providing airborne footage, said Kelly O'Keefe, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The company wouldn't say how much it benefits from the enterprise but said the dollar value of the broadcast attention it gets over the course of a year far outweighs the costs of operations. Goodyear said the advertising value is in the "millions of dollars."

"They get exposure at every highly trafficked public event," O'Keefe said. "That's a lot of value from an advertising perspective."

It's been so successful that other companies — Metropolitan Life Insurance and Fujifilm among them — have slapped their names on the side of blimps, Kelly said.

"But Goodyear's blimps are iconic," he said. "It's gotten to the point that if you just saw a silhouette of a blimp in the sky, you'd assume it belonged to Goodyear."

The blimp in Carson, dubbed Spirit of America, flies about four tours for passengers every day, typically for Goodyear clients who clamber inside the six-passenger gondola. The 45-minute late-afternoon tours are not available to the public; they're invitation-only and free of charge to friends and customers of the company as well as charity auctions.

While some neighbors find it noisy at times, the blimp is a popular sight, including to motorists passing by the airfield.

When the announcement came that Goodyear was replacing the fleet, the company's Facebook page was barraged with well-wishing send-offs. One teenage girl posted a message asking for assurance that the outgoing fleet be handled with care and to "not destroy the blimps."

In 1991, people sent get-well cards to the blimp after it collided with a remote-controlled model airplane and suffered a 1-square-foot gash.

And riding on the blimp is close-up and personal.

"If you want a nice view of what's below, this is the way to go," said Victor Gongora, a 45-year-old tire dealer from Santa Clarita, Calif. "A plane goes too fast. It's hard to see where you're at when you're traveling that fast."

The company got into the blimp business in 1910. During World War II, the U.S. Navy maintained a fleet of more than 150 blimps built by Goodyear. Some were even outfitted with .50-caliber machine guns.

Goodyear and ZLT Zeppelin teams will build the new airships at Goodyear facilities near Akron. The two companies previously built massive airships designed to carry hundreds of people from continent to continent, starting in 1924. The early zeppelins were four times as long as the current blimps.

But the deal between the two companies took a hit after the Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937 in front of news cameras while mooring at Lakehurst, N.J., deflating the chances for lighter-than-air ships to become a popular mode of travel.

Goodyear blimps are filled with nonflammable helium, not hydrogen like the Hindenburg. The company has been operating out of Carson since 1968 and in that time has never had a major accident.

"Nobody's afraid of the Goodyear blimp," Conrad said before a recent flight. "People smile when they see it go by. You know, I didn't get that kind of reaction when I flew helicopters."