Later this month, Goodyear will launch its newest airship, the 246-foot, 10-ton Wingfoot Three, out of a hangar in Akron, Ohio. It’s a big deal, and not just in the literal, bigger-than-most-jumbo-jets sense.
It’s the culmination of a seven-year effort to break from the company’s century-long tradition of blimp-making and to adopt sleek, modern airships designed by Germany’s Zeppelin conglomerate. In short, Goodyear is getting out of the blimp business.
The most impressive part? Goodyear has undertaken the biggest U.S. airship-pilot training program since the Second World War. And that’s huge, because airships are tricky — even veteran pilots need a year or more to learn the ropes.
Very few of them have. Only 128 people are qualified to fly airships in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Aside from contractors and experimental pilots, we count that about 17 of them are paid to do it full time. And 13 of them fly for Goodyear.
The others fly for AirSign, which has operated the blimps advertising MetLife and DirecTV. AirSign operates only one ship at present, but it has 14 other blimps and a pool of trained pilots on standby.
There are always a coupledreamers on the fringe, but the modern airship business is the ad business. Blimps are glorified billboards that double as the smoothest aerial camera platforms around. It’s the basis of a symbiotic relationship: Goodyear and AirSign provide aerial shots of live events, and in exchange broadcasters shout out their blimps on air.
“There’s not a sporting event that I have not televised,” said Terry Dillard, AirSign’s chief pilot. “And that includes the swamp buggy races down in Naples, Florida.”
The new ships are as big as a Boeing 747 and at least as difficult to fly. So when Goodyear moved away from homegrown blimps to honest-to-goodness Zeppelins, it had to retrain …read more
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