What it takes to fly the $21 million Goodyear Blimp
- We took a ride on the world-famous Goodyear Blimp as it flew above the Daytona International Speedway where it provided aerial coverage for NASCAR in February.
- Our journey began at the Blimp Base in Pompano Beach, Florida - from there, the Blimp flew 200 miles north to a small airport in New Smyrna, where it would call home for the weekend.
- We got to spend about five hours in the Blimp, which was updated in 2014 in collaboration with the Zeppelin company.
- The new model isn't technically a Blimp, due to the internal structure inside its balloon, or envelope.
- This is what it's like to fly on the iconic Goodyear Blimp, which isn't accessible to the public - only the crew and invited guests are allowed to go for a ride.
Jeff Capek: You know, everybody likes to see a blimp.
Michael Dougherty: It's just so big, you can't miss it. It's so unique to watch, and they're not even a national icon but a world icon. Folks all over the world know the Goodyear Blimp. It's such a unique piece of aviation history.
Capek: It's such a small niche of aviation that I didn't even realize that this job existed, really, until I found it. It's always challenging, and it's super fun. Yeah, it's all I want to do the rest of my career.
Narrator: The Goodyear Blimp has been flying for 100 years. The company began building its own airships in 1919.
Pilot: I'd like to tow you and your team of surfboard riders behind the airship.
Female Rider: Gee, I'd love to try that. What do you say, boys?
Male Rider: Let's go!
Narrator: The blimp's primary objective? To be an aerial ambassador for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. But the blimp that flies today isn't technically a blimp. From 1919 to 2014, it was a blimp, classified as a nonrigid airship, meaning that its balloon, or envelope, had no internal structure. But in 2014, in collaboration with the Zeppelin company in Germany, Goodyear began flying a new model, incorporating a structure made of carbon fiber and aluminum inside of the envelope, classifying the airship as semirigid. The cost of the updated airship is reportedly around $20 million.
Dougherty: It's such a tremendous leap forward for us because having the structure inside, being able to connect everything to that structure, the flight control system, just an all-around tremendous improvement for us over the previous models.
Narrator: Another key addition to the new model: four powerful propellers that can swivel to create both lift and thrust.
Dougherty: So if you point them straight up towards the sky, they hold you up like a helicopter, and if you point them forward, they pull you along like an airplane, and infinitely adjustable anywhere in between there.
Narrator: And an especially welcome addition to the updated blimp: a lavatory, which the previous models did not have. Even though it's no longer technically a blimp, don't worry. The company isn't going to refer to it as the Goodyear semirigid airship. It's going to remain known as the Goodyear Blimp.
Capek: I'm Jeff Capek. I'm the chief pilot here at the Goodyear Pompano Beach Airship Base. I learned how to fly the same way everybody does here. We hire pilots that are already fixed-wing or helicopter pilots, and then we train them in-house to fly airships. It could take anywhere from six months to maybe a little over a year to teach a pilot how to fly an airship.
Dougherty: Everybody's got a little different path, but my story's a little bit unique in that I started as a contractor for Goodyear, working mostly cutting grass at the hangar. I have a picture of me when I was 7 years old looking in the blimp at someplace that it parked near where I lived at the time. It was just such a cool, unique experience, you know, and one that you remember for forever. And then to come back and get the opportunity to fly them later in life, it was really cool.
Narrator: We joined the crew of the Goodyear Blimp on a Friday morning at the blimp base in Pompano Beach, Florida, about 40 miles north of Miami. The blimp and its crew of 20 were preparing to travel over 200 miles north to Daytona to provide aerial coverage for NASCAR at the Daytona International Speedway. The blimp flies there, but the crew has to drive.
Capek: About 20 of us go on the road with it together. We've got a semitruck, which is kind of like a rolling maintenance shop, so we travel pretty heavy.
Narrator: Three and a half hours later, the crew sets up for the blimp to land at a small airport in New Smyrna, just outside Daytona. The crew loads the gondola with extra ballast to keep it grounded. That's because the blimp is easily moved by the wind, and because of this, it needs a big parking spot.
Dougherty: We really need a pretty big spot to park this thing because it does have to be able to spin 360 degrees, and the airship itself is almost 250 feet long, so we need a minimum of a 500-foot clear circle because it'll go around in circles all day long.
Narrator: After landing, the ground crew connects the nose of the blimp to a mast.
Capek: On the top of the mast, there's a cup up there which receives a nose probe in the nose of the ship. So that probe fits into the cup in the top of the mast, and it locks it in there, which holds the ship on the ground when we're not flying it.
Narrator: The blimp's envelope is filled with 300,000 cubic feet of helium. But its engines require fuel.
Capek: It's called Avgas. It's 100 octane leaded fuel. It's the same fuel that every piston-powered aircraft runs on. This ship will hold 825 kilos in three separate tanks, one tank for each engine.
Narrator: People driving down the highway pull over to watch the blimp take off. But it wasn't just people that were interested in getting a closer look at the blimp.
Capek: When it's time to take off, we move this yellow lever, swivel that up to between 60 and 90 degrees, and then added thrust, which creates the lift to lift us off the ground like a helicopter. Once we lift it off the ground, we slowly swivel this yellow lever forward, which starts creating forward air speed, and the ship starts to fly aerodynamically.
Narrator: The flight from New Smyrna to the Daytona Speedway takes about 20 minutes. The gondola has room for 12 passengers, including the camera operator and his equipment.
Joshua Miller: NASCAR is one of our more challenging events we do. You've got a dynamic of the ship moving around, the cars moving around, so it can be a challenge at times to keep the cars framed in.
Narrator: The blimp's camera is mounted on the front of the gondola and is reportedly worth between $400,000 and $500,000. The pilots also have a monitor in the cockpit so they can see the action below and make adjustments if necessary.
Capek: We started off circling the track, and then the camera operator requested us to stop in this position here. It's just a good spot that works well with this camera and the sun angle.
Graham Flanagan: So one of the cool parts about what the blimp can do is that it can actually just kinda sit perfectly still. I mean, we are about 1,500 feet in the air right now, but we are parked, essentially, just sitting over the speedway.
Capek: We swivel the side engines up, which sort of makes the ship act as a helicopter, and can hover in one spot right here. The max altitude technically for this blimp is 10,000 feet. I doubt we'll ever go that high though. We normally stay around 1,000 to 2,000 feet. We like to be nice and low where people can see us.
Narrator: After around five hours in the sky, it was time to head home.
Flanagan: So is it fun to fly the Goodyear Blimp?
Dougherty: It's awesome. Feeling like you're flying a boat around in the sky, with the technology and capability in this one, it's so much fun to fly.
Capek: Great job again today, guys. All of our preparation looks like it's paying off. So the race went perfectly, the weather held out great for us, ship's been great, and we finished a little bit earlier than we thought we would, so good for us. All right, have a good night. See you guys later. Break.
Dougherty: The pilots are only a small piece, and really, without the crew and the support staff, the airships wouldn't go anywhere, so those are the guys that really do the work behind the scenes that nobody realizes happens, and the logistics that go into moving an airship down the road and maintaining a safe, world-class operation is not a small task.