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This summer a new, 192-foot-long Goodyear blimp, America , will go into operation. In winter the new ship will be based in Houston. The rest of the year, like Goodyear's other two gadabouts, it will wander hither and yon. While in all practical respects the new America will be the very latest thing in blimpery, it will have a certain haunting connection with the past. Although it has been renovated and refurbished, the cabin of the new America is the same cabin that was on the L-8.
The present-day Goodyear blimps engage in a wider variety of enterprises than those that were flying in the '20s and '30s, but they are more restrained in their behavior. For a fee, the early Goodyear blimps used to drag trailer signs advertising merchandise of all kinds and sometimes collaborated with kooky exhibitionists—the ultimate perhaps being a performer who, in the interest of promoting cleaner living, took a bath in a genuine bathtub suspended under a blimp. The present Mayflower has a complex panel of lights on each side that produce not only printed copy but also multicolored moving images, both realistic and psychedelic. Although any number of manufacturers and merchandisers would like to buy advertising time, Goodyear's billboard in the sky is not for hire. Indeed, the 976-pound flying night sign—or Skytacular, as its operators call it—is only used about 20% of the time to promote Goodyear enterprises. The Mayflower spends most of its hours aloft after dark notifying the populace of important local events and urging them to join worthy causes such as the Heart Fund, the March of Dimes and highway-safety campaigns.
Although in daylight hours the public usually sees the blimps at sports events or in transit, the Goodyear ships spend an equal amount of time taking passengers up for short tours and helping government agencies research programs. The FBI and the Treasury Department both use the blimps occasionally—and let us not ask why. State and local officials often go up in the blimps to study traffic snarls, to sample polluted air and to try to find answers to various other ills that plague heavily populated areas. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA, as it is better known—has used the blimps to help in a sonic-boom study project.
The new 192-foot America that will be emerging from its cocoon in Akron, Ohio early this summer will have a Skytacular sign bigger and better than the one on the Mayflower, and so will the new Columbia that is scheduled to replace the present Columbia before the end of the year. The night sign on the present Columbia is a relatively simple one that only permits words containing 10 letters or less to be flashed in sequence, but because it winters in Southern California where zealots and promoters abound, you can bet your life its services are constantly sought. Columbia's field manager, Terry Elms, spends a large part of each work week politely saying "no" to dreamers who do not know the meaning of the word. When his office phone rings, Elms never knows just what the next outlandish proposition is going to be. One man who calls in dearly wishes to suspend himself on a cable under the blimp and fly over the Watts district of Los Angeles to protest racial inequality. Another, a magician, wants to show the world that he can get out of a strait-jacket while hanging in the air. Another entrepreneur wants to take a jazz combo up and broadcast its noise over speakers on the ground, Lord knows why. A supermarket chain would like to throw Ping-Pong balls bearing sales messages out of the blimp. An enthusiastic Republican group wonders if it would be possible to attach an elephant's trunk and two large ears to the blimp. A Sunday-school teacher calls, asking if six pupils could be given a ride as a reward for perfect attendance. (This last request is the kind that Field Manager Elms might ordinarily honor, but, regrettably, at the time it was made, the blimp was collaborating with the American Cetacean Society in its annual count of gray whales during their winter migration to Baja California.)
Wherever it goes, each Goodyear blimp is followed by a large maintenance van and a bus carrying an 11-man ground crew, who must reach the appointed destination before the ship, not only to take its landing lines as it comes down, but also to set up the mast to which it will be moored. Ofttimes with a tail wind the blimp arrives at the next town before its ground support. In such cases, the pilot can do nothing except fly around, waving and making friends, until the ground crew pulls in. No destination is ever certain; no departure or arrival time is ever sure. A blimp may schedule an early-morning junket for important Goodyear customers. The customers show up on time, but if it is a cool, damp morning, they will not always leave on time. A single pilot will get into the blimp, lift it off and fly in circles for 10 or 15 minutes before coming back down to load on the passengers. What has the pilot been doing? He has been drying off the envelope, getting rid of 250 pounds of dew.
Out West, in the land of big mountains and strange winds, the blimp Columbia's life is very unpredictable, and its range peculiarly limited. Since the practical working height of the blimps is about 3,000 feet, it can never go to Denver, or for that matter, hardly anywhere else in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho or Montana. The whole area is simply too high in the sky.
Even in the lower country of the big West the Columbia does not always get where it is going. Pilot Lee Cermak remembers an attempt to cross west Texas. After clearing Van Horn Pass at an altitude of 5,400 feet, eastbound for the city of Midland, he recalls, "Suddenly ahead of me, clouds of dust. Whooee! That part of Texas makes its own weather. As far as I could see in front of me it was all dust. The ground crew radioed, asking me if I could make it to Midland. Ha. I answered them, 'Since it is 100 miles to Midland, and I have only 45 gallons of gas left, and I am using more than 15 gallons an hour, and since I am indicating an air speed of 50 miles an hour and I am not moving an inch over the ground, not one inch, it is my considered opinion that I cannot make it to Midland.'
"We went to Monahans, Texas, instead," Cermak remembers. "Yes sir, Monahans, Texas, one of those towns that has a sign by the road saying 'Welcome' on one side and 'Come Again' on the other. But it had an airport."
"I schedule a flight for photographers in San Diego," Columbia's Terry Elms says, "and when we get in the air, a fog moves in so thick you can't see 200 feet. Meanwhile, back in the Los Angeles basin the weather is beautiful, no smog at all, and every photographer in L.A. is clamoring to go up. Trying to arrange the Columbia's schedule even one day in advance," Elms continues, his voice getting a trifle shrill, "is like hitting a home run and taking off down the baseline to discover there isn't any first base."
Goodyear's crews have wandered so erratically and stopped at so many places they never intended to visit that they have a hard time remembering where they have been. If you ask any three members of the Mayflower's crew today where they went last year after the National Campers and Hikers Convention in Du Quoin, Ill., none of them will be able to say surely if it was Galesburg, Ill., Hibbing, Minn. or Winona, Wis. One of them may insist it was Winona, Minn. But you can be sure the Mayflower blimpmen will remember their trip to Boston in 1966, when they played the villain in a two-part musical tragedy. During the Mayflower's first night ride over Boston, 25,000 music lovers were enjoying a concert by the Boston Symphony at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the banks of the Charles River. The feature of the program was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which has been described as epitomizing the German composer's "visions by night." While the orchestra was working its way smoothly through this masterpiece, there appeared overhead quite a large and different kind of vision: the friendly Goodyear blimp, its engines throbbing and its night sign flashing. "PARDON OUR GLOW...IT'S NO UFO," the blimp's night sign said. "IT'S THE GOODYEAR BLIMP.... HOWDY DOWN THERE."