The winds of change transform the airship industry, as Goodyear switches from blimps to Zeppelins

Goodyear’s new German-designed Zeppelins are faster and more manoeuvrable than old-style blimps, but require a huge retraining programme for pilots

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 10:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 10:19am

Later this month, Goodyear will launch its newest airship, the 75-metre, nine-tonne 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 US airship-pilot training programme since 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 US, 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 airship at present, but it has 14 blimps and a pool of trained pilots on standby.

There are always a couple of dreamers on the fringe, but the modern blimp and airship business is the ad business - they 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 and brands 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 most of the nation’s full-time airship pilots.

The Zeppelins are made by a descendant of the company that brought the world the Hindenburg, but don’t panic. They haven’t filled airships with flammable hydrogen for about 80 years. These days, blimps (vast rubberized envelopes that get their shape from the gas inside) and Zeppelins (semi-rigid airships with an aluminum and carbon-fiber skeleton) are both lifted by helium.

In a triumph of public relations over pedantry, the company refers to its new Zeppelins as “Goodyear Blimps,” rather than the more accurate “Goodyear Semi-Rigid Dirigibles.”

Tiremaker Goodyear had been building airships since 1911. It sold hundreds of blimps and balloons to the armed forces during the world wars, but it hasn’t exactly been a growth industry in the years since -- until last year, it was still using a model of blimp that first flew in 1972.

It made sense to ditch the legacy blimps. The faster, more manoeuvrable Zeppelins provide smoother coverage of more events. They don’t lose as much expensive helium during operation. They’re also bigger, which means they can carry twice as many passengers and provide more billboard space for the tire and rubber company.

Training is overseen by Goodyear’s chief pilot, Michael Dougherty, the only person in the country that the FAA has designated as a pilot examiner for airships.

A patient, even-keeled blimp virtuoso who goes by the nickname Doc, Dougherty studied aviation at Kent State University and spent three years flying 50-seat airliners for Continental Express. He joined Goodyear in 2007 and earned his stripes on the company’s old blimps.

Keeping those plodding sky-boats trim against the elements was a constant, physical battle. Steering a blimp required manoeuvring a seat-mounted wooden flight wheel and the pedals, knobs and cables that controlled the engines and the flow of air in the huge gas compartments above. It was so taxing that Dougherty and his peers often spelled each other every hour.

“It’s a difficult beast to master,” Dougherty said. “I think the pilots who fly them have gone through the most difficult pilot training there is.”

With the new Zeppelins, which cost a reported average of US$21 million each, airships are catching up with eight decades of aviation technology. Pilots sit behind a modern avionic dashboard and twiddle control sticks to direct advanced, swivelling engines. In a welcome advance in an industry where flights often exceed eight hours, they also have onboard bathrooms.

To learn them, Dougherty earned a special German pilot license and spent hundreds of hours flying tourists around Lake Constance and along the Rhine River for a Zeppelin subsidiary.

Dougherty runs a rigorous, multi-step version of flight school -- without the flight simulators. There’s no point. It’s impossible to simulate the atmospheric mayhem that remains an airship pilot’s primary opponent. Airships lack the predictable routes and powerful autopilot in much of commercial aviation.

As a result, airship training can’t be rushed. You can teach someone to fly a single-engine plane in 10 to 15 hours, AirSign chief executive Patrick Walsh said. But, as 63-year-old chief pilot Terry Dillard said, it takes 250 to 400 hours before an airship pilot can go solo - even if the FAA requires only 50 hours of experience before your official examination.

“Nobody’s going to give you their blimp after you get 50 hours,” Dillard said. “You know enough to get yourself in trouble, but not enough to get yourself out.”

“They need to experience the different weather conditions all over the United States of America,” Dillard added. “If I teach you how to fly here in Florida only, how are you going to know how to handle the winds over the mountains?”