Goodyear Blimp Report

Monday 18th April 2011

After a gap of twelve years, an iconic Goodyear blimp has returned to British skies this summer. Flown by the tyre company as part of a summer-long road safety initiative across twenty European nations, the airship has been based at both Wolverhampton Airport at Halfpenny Green in the West Midlands, and at Damyns Hall in Essex, prior to starting the tour of mainland Europe at the end of April.

Dan O'Hagan reports from Damyns Hall for UKAR. Photography by the author and Phil Whalley, except where courtesy of Goodyear UK.

Airships have always held a fascination for me. Right from the time as a small boy I was taken to Halfpenny Green to see the Fujifilm Skyships back in the early 1980s, and indeed the Goodyear airship Europa around that time too. Since reaching adulthood I've read more widely on the subject than I have on any other form of aviation, captivated by the golden era of the big rigid ships of the first forty years of the last century, the world's first true airliners, and indeed the world's first long-range bombers. Beautiful, mystical, yet at the same time fatally flawed, a flaw which at last became too big to ignore after the loss of the Hindenburg in 1937.

The blimp is more than just a modern marketing tool for Goodyear, airships are at the heart of the company's history. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, with its origins in Akron, Ohio, has been involved in the manufacture of airships and blimps for the best part of a century. After World War One they went into partnership with (and indeed probably saved from extinction) the German Zeppelin concern, producing among other airships the revolutionary, if ultimately ill-fated flying aircraft carriers USS Akron and USS Macon.

Once I heard that a new Goodyear blimp was in the country this year, I knew I had to pay a visit, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to take a flight in the ship.

Amazingly it was way back in 1989 that a Goodyear blimp last paid these shores a visit, and G-TLEL Spirit of Safety I - the 2011 incarnation - is a much smaller ship, seating just the pilot and three to four passengers.

Boarding the aircraft is a curious experience, due to the need to keep the ship's buoyancy in equilibrium, it's a case of one passenger jumping off, so another can get on board. Also, when boarding, even at the mooring mast, the airship is moving around, despite the best efforts of the ground crew, so the effect is not unlike trying to board a small rowing boat from a quayside.

Safely on board, the gondola offers a tremendous view, with huge widows all around. Take-off and landing can be spectacularly steep, as an airship is never at risk of stalling; this makes for some pretty impressive angles of pitch and bank during my half-hour sortie out over the Dartford and Tilbury areas of Essex. The cabin is pretty noisy, with the constant drone of the twin Limbach engines, each pumping out 80HP. Top airspeed is in excess of 50mph, though the prevailing winds can have a large effect on just how quickly the ship can travel over the ground. For this brief flight, the blimp cruised at a height between 1,000 and 1,200 feet, though she can fly much higher - the aircraft has a pressure height of 10,000 feet.

American Blimp Corporation A60+ G-TLEL
Spirit of Safety I
Deutches Luftschiff Zeppelin 129 D-LZ129
American Blimp Corporation A60+Deutches Luftschiff Zeppelin 129
Length:128 feetLength:803 feet
Volume:68,000 cubic feet of HeliumVolume:7,062,000 cubic feet of Hydrogen
Powerplant:2 x Limbach 80HP enginesPowerplant:4 x Daimler-Benz 1,200HP DB602 diesel motors
Maximum Speed:53mphMaximum Speed:85mph
Passengers:3Passengers:50 - 72
Crew:1 PilotCrew:40 - 61

Goodyear have put the ship to good use since she was assembled and launched from the very sheds which once housed Britain's vast, if downright dangerous and avoidably tragic rigid R-101, at Cardington in late March. In partnership with Sky Sports, the slow speed and stable flying characteristics of the blimp have been used to provide additional cameras at a number of sporting events, most notably Barclays Premier League football at venues including Molineux, Wolverhampton (Goodyear UK's "home" town), Villa Park, Birmingham, as well as Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in north London. At night the ship illuminates from within the envelope, and has already been responsible for a number of "UFO" sightings over UK cities.

G-TLEL, along with her sister ship Spirit of Safety II, currently operating in France, faces a busy summer, visiting in total twenty European countries to spread Goodyear's road safety message, before returning to the UK in October. That schedule means the ship is unlikely to be available for any of the major airshows on the UK calendar, which is a shame, given that the old Europa was a fairly regular visitor and welcome sight at shows across her career.

Spirit of Safety I will be based at the charming Damyns Hall Aerodrome in Essex until April 29, and is set to return to the UK on October 11 (operating out of Halfpenny Green). She's a terrific sight and well worth making an effort to catch up with.

To read more about both the blimp's tour, and Goodyear's road safety campaign, visit the Goodyear Blimp Website.

Author's footnote:

On June 12th, 2011, UKAR was sad to hear of the fatal crash of G-TLEL near Reichelsheim airfield, Germany. The accident sadly claimed the life of pilot Mike Nerandzic, who was at the controls for our flight back in April. Mike was passionate about lighter-than-air flight, and clearly loved his job. Our most sincere condolences go to his family, and indeed the whole Goodyear blimp team.