Editor’s Note: This week’s Capital Region Scrapbook included photos from two Goodyear Blimp visits, in 1963 and 1982. This is the story that ran with the 1982 blimp visit, written by our reporter Carl Strock.
Aug. 2, 1982
“It’s just like riding a wave,” pilot Pat Henry tried to explain. “The warm air comes up from the ground in a corkscrew. When you enter the corkscrew, you get twisted to the side and go up, and when you come out of it, you get twisted the other way and go down.”
In other words, riding the Goodyear blimp is not like riding a wave. In fact, it’s not like riding anything else in the world, except maybe a drunken camel with an outboard motor on it and a great big balloon overhead.
You go floating up as soon as the ground-crewmen untie the beast and let go of the ropes, and the first thing you wonder as the ground keeps rushing away is if you’ll ever stop rising or just go floating off into the great beyond like a child’s balloon.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got only enough helium on board to go 3,000 feet,” Henry said, sitting in what looks like a wheelchair and manipulating levers to let air in or out of the balloon.
Henry, who has piloted Goodyear blimps for nine years, levelled off at 500 feet, “about our usual operational altitude,” and commenced raising and dipping the nose of the airship, not for the drunken-camel effect, he said, but just to “ride the thermals.”
The Goodyear blimp – one of three in the United States – rode the thermals yesterday over Schenectady as part of an unscheduled visit on its summer tour of the eastern seaboard.
“We were in Elmira yesterday for the 150th anniversary of the fire company,” a blimp spokesman said. “They’re a big customer for our tires. And we have to be in Boston tomorrow to help promote an anti-drunk-driving campaign. That’s too far to fly in one day, so we needed to stopover and Albany didn’t have room for us.”
Schenectady County airport did, and the blimp spokesman – public relations man Tom Bell, who is to the blimp what an advance man is to a politician – offered a local reporter a ride.
“Oh, no, we couldn’t fall,” pilot Henry said. “If the engines failed, we’d just settle slowly back to the ground.”
“Lose the helium? Oh, no,” he said, “there’s not enough pressure differential.”
Henry spun the wheel on his wheelchair-like seat, and the great, bulbous, blimp pointed down toward the ground. “This is the elevator wheel,” he offered. He pumped a couple of pedals, one under each foot, and the nose slowly swung back and forth. “These are the rudder pedals,” he said.
“No, it can’t do rollovers,” he said.
Henry said he’s “on the road” six or seven months of the year, flying the 64-yard-long blimp from city to city all over the eastern United States, for one promotional event or another, taking turns with another pilot, and giving free rides to reporters for the sake of the publicity.
“We make our home in Pompano Beach, Fla.,” he said. “That’s where we spend the winter. But all summer, we’re on the road.”
On the road for the Goodyear blimp is like on the road for a circus – a busful of ground-crewmen and a tractor-trailerful of equipment follow the ship, along with point man Tom Bell. At each stop a mast must be erected to anchor the lighter-than-air ship. Keeping up from city to city is no problem, the blimp lumbers along at 35 miles per hour.
Bell explained that other Goodyear blimps are based in Los Angeles and Houston, with a new one recently assigned to Rome, Italy, to work the skies of western Europe.
Anyone who has seen photographs of old German zeppelins, with passengers riding in what look like ballrooms, will be interested to know that the passenger compartment of the Goodyear blimp is about the size of a limousine, with room for the pilot and six passengers.
The ride is not as quiet as a ride in a hot-air balloon. It’s not even as quiet as a ride on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The ship is powered by two six-cylinder, 210-horsepower engines – one at each ear, when you’ve got the windows open, and you have to shout to be heard. All the helium does is make the ship buoyant; the engines make it go somewhere besides where the wind wants it to go.
Yesterday it went over the General Electric Co. and that industry’s ample landfill, for a look at where a shopping mall might be built, over the Gazette building and City Hall, where all was quiet on the outside (you have a good view from 500 feet); up and down the Mohawk River, where two persons were sunbathing on a waterskiing ramp; over Scotia, where a white-haired gentleman next to a backyard swimming pool looked up, shading his eyes; and finally over and down to the county airport, where a crowd was gathering for a close look.
The blimp has been at it since 1929, creating good will for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., showing up at Indianapolis 500s, World Series, Rose Bowls, and Elmira firemen’s anniversaries.
It costs $2 million a year to keep a blimp going, “but you can’t say what it’s worth in terms of public relations,” Tom Bell said. “It’s part of American life, like Mickey Mouse. Everyone knows what it is, and you can’t possibly dislike it. We’re very careful never to do anything offensive with it – no hard selling. Three-fourths of the messages we put on it are public-service messages.”
“We’d like to be able to give everyone a ride on it,” he said, “but it’s just impossible. We tried selling rides in Florida, but we were getting 1,000 requests a day. We finally gave up. Now it’s just media people and special invited guests.
“See you in Boston,” he hollered to the pilot.