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Just a Thought — High-flying assignment on Goodyear’s Spirit of Innovation tops them all

Just a Thought — High-flying assignment on Goodyear’s Spirit of Innovation tops them all

Posted: Friday, October 3, 2008 10:11 pm
By: Donna Ryder Messenger Associate Editor

  I’ve been in the newspaper business for more than 15 years, when counting the time I worked at the college newspaper at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville.

Over those years I’ve had the opportunity to do many interesting and exciting things. Among them were to cover the first President Bush when he visited APSU on the campaign trail and to photograph the Harlem Globetrotters when they played basketball there.

I’ve been in a helicopter, on a cargo plane and in a tethered hot air balloon. I’ve ridden in a fire truck, been there when the firefighters started a blaze for training purposes and met country singer Trace Adkins when he purchased a pickup truck from the former Best Chevrolet in Ashland City.

What I did this week just about tops them all, though.

The Spirit of Innovation, one of Goodyear’s three airships, visited Union City. As a member of the press, I was offered a much-coveted seat on one of the flights over Union City and the local Goodyear plant. Flights were set to start around noon on Wednesday and I was scheduled for the 12:45 p.m. flight. Because of the swirling winds, the flights were delayed.

Instead of packing up my camera and heading back to the office, I decided to use the time to view the blimp up close and personal. The pilots were very open to questions from Goodyear associates who had won the seats on the flights and from the general public who had ventured out to the Everett-Stewart Regional Airport to get a look at the famous blimp.

I learned some very interesting things on Wednesday. On the van ride down to the blimp, pilot Marty Chandler said a recent opening has already yielded about 200 resumes from pilots. He said many of the people who generally apply to pilot Goodyear’s airships are current commercial pilots or those who have retired.

The life of a Goodyear blimp pilot isn’t always easy. On long trips, two pilots take to the sky. The flight to Union City took about eight hours, Chandler said. The 16-member crew, which follows the blimp in a van, tractor-trailer truck and bus, gets to stop along the way, but the pilots must take all their food with them. In fact, Chandler said the blimp could have made it to Union City in about six hours, but would have spent two hours simply flying around until the ground crew arrived to set up the mooring mast.

The blimp is attached to the mooring mast by a man who climbs the pole and attaches the nose cone. Mechanic Ken Horton, who answered questions for school children on Thursday, informed them that, unlike airplanes, crew members actually run toward the blimp as it approaches its landing site to grab the cables which are then used to hold the blimp down until it can be secured.

The blimp is generally on tour for three weeks but, according to pilot Brian Comer, has been out for three months this time. He said the initial three-week tour was extended and then they could not go home to Florida, where the Spirit of Innovation is based, because of the hurricanes. The crew left Union City this morning for Talladega before heading to North Carolina and then, hopefully, home.

Traveling on the ground everywhere the blimp goes is a bus which has a portable mooring mast attached to the top. Should the crew ever run into rough weather or have a mechanical problem, it can make an emergency landing on the bus.

Probably the No. 1 question asked by each group of school children was, “What would happen if someone shot the blimp?” Horton’s answer was that it would be a very slow leak and wouldn’t pop like a balloon. He said the crew can check for holes in the blimp by entering certain chambers. It is pitch dark inside the blimp’s envelope and, on a bright day, it is easy to spot a hole. He said it will look like a star. Should there ever be a hole in the blimp when the crew is on assignment, they fix it with all-purpose duct tape.

The blimp is made of a polyester material with rubber rolled in to keep the helium from leaking out of the envelope. It is the thickness of a pair of blue jeans, according to Horton. Chandler said a patch is taken from the top periodically to check for defects. He said it sounds strange to cut a hole in the blimp, but that is the best way to make sure it’s still air-worthy.

Horton told the inquisitive children it takes five years to make a blimp and about six months for 30 people to assemble it. It will be air inflated several times to make sure there are no leaks before being filled with 184,000 cubic feet of helium. Two ballonets hold 18,000 cubic feet of air.

Seven people can ride on the airship when it is fitted for passengers. Horton said there is also a removable door for instances when the blimp is used for broadcasts of football games and the like.

More information about the blimps and a slide show of the building of the Spirit of Innovation may be seen on www.goodyearblimp.com.

Associate Editor Donna Ryder can be contacted by e-mail at dryder@ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 10.03.08

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