If last year was my year of kayaks and helicopters, this year is canoes and blimps — well just one blimp in particular. The Goodyear Blimp is a cultural icon, a legendary airship with over nine decades of history. From a massive fleet in WWII to hosting Presidents and celebrities, to making appearances in the skies over 100 major sporting events each year.
Goodyear built more than 150 blimps for the US Navy during the Second World War and they have just four airships in their fleet today. Three of these very safe modes of travel are based in the United States, and they operate year-round, flying on tours and acting as giant billboards for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
“I’m a tire salesman,” pilot Bill Bayliss told our crew as five of us piled into The Spirit of Innovation for the first ride of the day. The blimp is in Abbotsford all week to celebrate Fountain Tire’s 60th anniversary.
The gondola seats seven in total and it’s attached to the ballonet that’s just air and helium (enough helium to blow up 15 million birthday balloons). It’s powered by two pusher engines, which are actually quieter than a float plane, but louder than you would expect from a balloon-with-power. A rudder and elevator on the tail help it move up and down. The signature electronic billboard on the side of the ballonet contains 82,656 LEDs, and during our trip it was saluting Fountain Tire.
Take off and landing is a balancing act, between the pilot’s full body workout (using pedals, pulleys, and the elevator wheel) and the grounds crew who release ropes to set us free to float up into the sky. On the way back down the crew has to grab onto the ropes once more and pull us down onto the tarmac. “You have to have strong legs to be a blimp pilot,” Bayliss added while we were in the air. “Blimpin’ ain’t easy but it sure is fun!”
The blimp flies about as low as a seaplane, about 1,000-1,500ft and it can go up to 50mph. There are no seat belts and you can get up and change seats, we played musical chairs to give everyone a turn up front. The front windows were open, letting in a nice breeze, and when the craft did dip, it was no more than a 25% grade.
After first taking flight in 1972, The Spirit of Innovation is the last airship of its kind in the world, and it will be retired next year.
It’s impossible to outright book a flight on a Goodyear Blimp, as rides are by invitation only. Fountain Tire did host a series of contests for their cross-Canada tour and celebration this year and they’re running flights for the rest of the week (until July 8th) out of the Abbotsford Airport with those lucky winners along with partners from around BC.
While my stomach fluttered between nervousness and excitement this morning, I knew that when opportunities like this come about, you take advantage of them. I’m pretty thrilled that I have now become a card-carrying member of the exclusive Goodyear Blimp Club.
View the rest of my photos in this album on Flickr.