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Goodyear Updates Its 'Aerial Ambassador' The Blimp


In Akron, Ohio, workers are busy assembling the next generation of Goodyear blimps. Goodyear already has three airships in the United States. Over the next three years, it will replace them with a new model and there are some significant upgrades.

Mark Urycki of member station WKSU reports.


MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: Here that sound? It's familiar to millions of people who have heard the Goodyear blimps fly slowly overhead. That's a 1969 model called the gz20. It has a cruising speed of 30 miles per hour. The company calls them its aerial ambassadors because they not only get the corporate name in front of people, but really, who doesn't love the blimp?

Goodyear estimates that each year some 60 million Americans will see one of its three blimps fly by. One who has is Tom Bradley. He's now helping assemble the new one.

TOM BRADLEY: I've spent my life watching the Goodyear blimp fly over as a kid. My first recollection is when I was two in 1969. And I've just always had a love of the blimps.

URYCKI: Bradley is an aviation mechanic at Goodyear who calls himself blessed.

BRADLEY: I have no doubt about it that I am one of the luckiest mechanics ever.

URYCKI: Bradley is working with technicians from the German company ZLT Zeppelin, a descendant of the company that built the Graf and, yes, the Hindenburg. It began working with Goodyear in 1922.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

URYCKI: In a nearly century-old airship hangar outside Akron, a seven-member crew is bolting together triangular girders made of aluminum and carbon fiber. They'll make up the internal frame of the new blimp. They'll have three engines that run on aviation fuel. Right behind the workers rests the older gz20 model blimp, which has no internal structure and just two engines.

Goodyear's Ed Ogden looks over the new version.

ED OGDEN: I'm asked constantly, will this be called a blimp? Well, the fact is, technically, it is not a blimp. It's an airship. It's a semi-rigid airship. I would never discourage anyone from calling anything we build out of here, coming out, calling it a blimp.

URYCKI: The new blimp will carry up to 12 passengers, five more than the current model. The new polyester envelope is filled with both air and helium. It'll also be 50 feet longer, stretching to 246 feet or about the same length as the largest 747 jumbo jet.

NANCY RAY: It's going to be long and skinny as compared to a kind of the chubby one that we have today.

URYCKI: That's Goodyear's director of Global Operations for Airships, Nancy Ray. While Zeppelin designed most of the airship, Goodyear designed the cockpit at the front of the gondola.

RAY: Our current method for flying is completely mechanical. And this is completely electrical and very high tech.

URYCKI: Zeppelin has two similar dirigibles flying in Germany, selling rides to tourists. But you can't buy a ticket for the Goodyear blimp. Rides are invitation only. These are working vehicles. They help televise some 120 events a year, all the while spreading the Goodyear name. They carry more than 80,000 LED lights, a number that's about to double, enabling them to run graphics day and night.

A couple years ago, the London-based Event magazine named the Goodyear blimp to its list of the top six guerilla marketing campaigns. Pretty trendy for the company that's been using blimps for promotions since 1925. The airship is hardly edgy, but one of the pilots, James Kosmos, who used to fly jets, isn't complaining.

JAMES KOSMOS: The blimps are way more fun. Twenty miles an hour at a thousand feet is more fun; you see a lot more. And it's a little bit more of a challenge to fly too, so it makes it exciting.

URYCKI: Wow, more challenging than a jet?

KOSMOS: Yeah, 'cause there are so many more variables, you know, winds and temperatures and, you know, the physics of helium and things like that, to make it more of a challenge.

URYCKI: The new Goodyear blimp is expected to be completed this fall and starts flying soon after.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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