As the Mayflower plods northward to Jacksonville, children and adults, surfers and sunbathers, pier fishermen and surf fishermen wave at her, and Field Manager Newcombe waves back to one and all. By actual count, along one 45-mile stretch of coast between Fort Pierce and Melbourne, Newcombe waves to 418 people and three dogs. Along the same 45-mile stretch his blimp is photographed approximately 50 times.
While most people are enthusiastic about the blimp, the reactions of other creatures vary considerably. Some dogs ignore it. Some look up at it and yawn. A few trot after it, pointing their noses skyward as if trying to smell out the nature of the thing. Sea cows lolling in the shallows do not react at all when a blimp passes overhead, but stingrays and leopard rays tend to skitter about nervously. Porpoises often roll to one side, cocking an eye upward as if pondering what sort of large whale cousin it is that travels in the sky.
At 5:30, when the weak winter sun goes below land, the blimp is still 45 miles south of its destination. Although the evening is too cool for romancers and picnickers, the blimp is never alone for long as it moves through the darkness along the desolate beach. Hearing its throb and seeing its running lights through their picture windows, people step outdoors and wave. Dashing through two rooms in his haste to get outside, one small boy knocks over a chair and falls down twice.
At 7:20 p.m. Pilot Whelan at last brings the Mayflower down in Jacksonville. On their way north by car, Marcia and Melissa Esh have stopped once for gas, twice for comfort, and spent an hour at lunch. Although they also stopped for an hour at Marineland to enjoy the clowning porpoises and to watch a whale have its teeth brushed, they still reached Jacksonville an hour and a half ahead of the Mayflower. Albert Royce, the National Airlines passenger who left Miami an hour after the blimp, has long since landed in Newark, attended a meeting of the Passaic Boys' Club and had two business conferences in his own office. In the same 10 hours and 55 minutes that the Mayflower took to go 320 miles up the Florida coast, the space crew of Apollo 8 has traveled 45,690 miles down the dark path back to earth.
The morning of the big Gator Bowl game between Missouri and Alabama dawned wet, windy and miserable, and for a while it looked as if the Mayflower had come 320 miles for naught. In a heavy rain, the quantity of water constantly running off the blimp's broad back adds about 600 pounds. With a two-man television crew and equipment—and sufficient fuel to buck a 30-mile-an-hour wind for the length of a football game—a blimp cannot safely take on that much extra weight in useless rainwater. Luckily, by game time the rain stopped and the scowling clouds broke apart. By the middle of the second quarter the wind had dropped to about 25 miles an hour so that Pilot Frank Hogan was able to get the television crew over the Gator Bowl for the last half of the game. While Missouri was squashing Alabama, ABC used aerial shots from the Mayflower six times and gave television viewers five glimpses of the blimp itself. On each occasion Announcer Bill Flemming had something nice to say about the Goodyear gasbag. Considering that at least 100,000 people had seen the Mayflower on its way north, 68,000 more saw it at the game and another 15 million saw it on television, the journey seemed worthwhile.
For more than a hundred years, long before there was any winged machine, gas-filled dirigibles of one sort or another have been on the prowl. In the first half of this century big rigid Zeppelins, semirigid airships and nonrigid blimps made wondrous journeys and caught the public's fancy, but entirely too many of them were dismal failures. Indeed, when the whole history of lighter-than-air craft is examined dispassionately, when all "ifs" and "buts" are cast aside and the triumphs are weighed against the disasters, there is not much left on the credit side of the ledger except the excellent record of the Goodyear blimps flown by the U.S. Navy in World War II and the relatively modest, but almost flawless, performance of Goodyear's private blimp fleet.
During its first busy years in the airship business, Goodyear suffered one great personal tragedy. On July 21, 1919, before sufficient noninflammable helium was available, a hydrogen-filled Goodyear blimp, the Wingfoot Express, burned in the sky over Chicago. Three men aboard perished, and part of the flaming wreckage crashed through the skylight of a bank, killing 10 people. Since 1925, when Goodyear began using helium exclusively, only one pilot and one crewman have lost their lives. In both instances the Goodyear men died while overzealously trying to save their ships in violent weather.
In the past 43 years the Goodyear goodwill fleet has logged 6,098,119 miles and carried 591,048 passengers without an injury. Over the years a few women have ripped tight skirts climbing aboard the blimps. Pilot Joe Whelan once temporarily lost a passenger in midflight—a small Cuban boy who, for some reason, crawled under his seat to hide—but that has been about the worst of it.
At the start of World War II the U.S. Navy had 10 blimps. By the end of the war there were about 150 Navy gasbags in the air, most of them on antisubmarine patrol along the east coast of the Americas, from Maine all the way south to Rio. Although German and Italian subs sank 532 vessels in the western Atlantic, out of 89,000 ships convoyed by blimps, not one was lost. Last December when the Mayflower was in Jacksonville getting ready to fly over the Gator Bowl game, a gray-haired man walked onto the field. "My name is Falco," he said. "I was in the merchant marine four years in the war. We never worried when the blimps were hanging around us. This is the closest I've ever been to one. I'd just like to give it a pat for old time's sake."
During the war the Navy lost eight blimps in line of duty. A German sub shot one out of the sky in the Florida straits. While flying down to Rio at an altitude of 800 feet on a foggy night, another blimp ran into a 1,092-foot-high island that according to Army Air Corps charts (copied from old German charts) was supposed to be less than 100 feet high. On the U.S. West Coast, the Navy blimp L-8 met a strange end that no one has been able to explain fully. On an August morning in 1942 the L-8 took off from Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for a routine three-hour patrol over the Pacific. At 7 a.m., an hour after lift-off, Pilot Ernest Cody radioed back that he was investigating an oil slick. Neither Pilot Cody nor his copilot, an ensign named Adams, was heard from or seen again. When their abandoned blimp was examined, the door was open and the throttles in idle position—the best guess is that, while leaning out the door dropping smoke flares to mark the oil slick, both men fell to their death. In any case, at 11:30 a.m. the Coast Guard sighted their blimp lying on the beach about five miles south of the Golden Gate. An onshore wind was buffeting the huge envelope against the palisade behind the beach. Before anyone could get to the blimp, the action of the wind dislodged its 325-pound depth charge. Thus lightened, the unmanned L-8 took off from the beach, drifted four miles inland and landed in a narrow street lined with two-story houses in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. After settling gently down on its single landing wheel, with perfect aplomb the unmanned blimp rolled a block up the street and came to a stop at an intersection. The L-8 could have been deflated, carted off and refilled, but volunteer firemen, not comprehending the nature of the beast, slashed the gas envelope open, believing that, since no one was in the cabin, there must be somebody up in the bag.