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Of all the old and strange creatures still roaming this earth, the biggest and rarest by far are the Goodyear blimps, Mayflower and Columbia—two gas-filled gypsies that wander around the country making friends, championing worthy causes and appearing frequently on television. Although these two motor-powered gasbags cruise at only 35 miles an hour and require more tender loving care than most men are willing to give their ailing mothers, they somehow manage to turn up here, there and almost everywhere.
In good weather and in foul, one of the two Goodyear blimps is likely to be found hanging above some large sports event somewhere in the country—a friendly giant seemingly fascinated by the contest being waged by Lilliputians in the arena below. Last June, when Lee Trevino, the happy pauper-prince of golf, won the U.S. Open in Rochester, a Goodyear blimp was on hand.
Last May, when Dancer's Image did or did not win the Kentucky Derby, a Goodyear blimp was overhead. At the Indianapolis 500 two years ago, when the whining turbine car driven by Parnelli Jones died a few miles from the finish, a Goodyear blimp was hovering above, bulging with pride as A.J. Foyt went on to win in a piston clunker equipped with Goodyear tires.
Last Memorial Day a blimp was again in attendance at the Indianapolis 500 as Bobby Unser outlasted the turbines to make it two in a row for Goodyear rubber. The blimp Columbia was at the Rose Bowl this past New Year's Day when OSU put down USC. Two weeks later, when Joe Namath and the Jets turned the professional football world upside down in the Super Bowl, the blimp Mayflower was there—watching and sharing TV time.
Between such major sports events and important civic functions, the bumptious blimps frequently show up at clambakes or company outings, where they are the life of the party. If the weather is fair, the blimps simply settle down in a nearby cornfield or pasture and take picnickers up, six at a time, for half-hour rides. (Some people do not like to ride in blimps, but after a couple of beers at a company outing, just about everybody wants to climb aboard.)
With no advance notice, the wandering blimps often drop out of the blue to spend a night at some small-town airport, bringing joy to spectators of all ages. Because the children in small towns have often seen the blimps in miniature on television, they are thrilled to see the real thing, life-size, monstrous, right in their own backyard. At the sight of the blimp, adults may nostalgically remember their own childhoods, 30 and 40 years ago, when everyone poured out into the schoolyard to look up at the Akron, the Macon , or one of the other great silver dirigibles of yesterday.
Because they are so slow, the Goodyear blimps are often hard put to keep every date on their crowded social calendar. Consider, for example, a typical odyssey of the blimp Mayflower this past December. On Christmas Day the Mayflower was serving as an aerial platform for ABC television at the North-South football game in Miami, and it was scheduled to collaborate again with ABC at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 28. On the morning after Christmas, many Americans were simply lounging around, recovering from their Yuletide cheer, but there were a number of ordinary—and a few extraordinary—travelers on the move. The fastest travelers that morning were the famous Apollo 8 trio, Borman, Lovell and Anders, who had given the moon a few whirls and were homeward bound along a narrow corridor in space, doing about 3,700 miles an hour and accelerating all the time. Without much doubt the slowest of all the air travelers that morning were Goodyear Pilots Joseph Whelan and Richard Esh, who were poking their way up the Florida coast aboard the blimp Mayflower.
As the air waves crackle with news of the records being set by the gallant Apollo crew, all that Pilots Whelan and Esh are hoping is that they can get their blimp from Miami to Jacksonville without an overnight stop. In the first half hour aloft, Pilot Whelan is holding his blimp steady at an altitude of 200 feet and about 200 feet offshore. Judging by the smoke from a burning trash dump, he knows he is bucking about an eight-mile-an-hour wind. Noticing that sea gulls and terns are overtaking the blimp, Pilot Whelan says dourly, "It's going to be one of those long days."
By 9:25, exactly an hour after takeoff, the Mayflower has traveled 22 miles and is coming up on Fort Lauderdale. Dick Esh calls the local airport. " Fort Lauderdale tower," he says, "this is Goodyear blimp November One Alpha."
"Hello there, blimp One Alpha" the tower replies cheerily.