Goodyear bids goodbye to blimps, says hello to zeppelins

The tire giant is building its next generation of Goodyear blimps -- but the new airships won't technically be blimps at all. CNET Road Trip 2013 discovers the secrets behind Goodyear's new fleet.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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Hidden away in Goodyear's Akron, Ohio airship hangar, the tire giant is slowly building its next-generation blimp. Technically a zeppelin, the first of three of the new airships is slated to be finished later this year. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AKRON, Ohio -- To Goodyear, a blimp is a blimp, even if it's not a blimp.

For decades, the tire giant has been flying its signature airships around the United States, mostly over sporting events, and has become one of the most recognizable icons in the world.

But Goodyear's current fleet of three blimps -- based out of Akron, Pompano Beach, Fla., and Carson, Calif. -- is aging, and the company announced in 2011 that it had decided to replace the airships with zeppelins, which are longer, faster, quieter, and more maneuverable than blimps.

Making Goodyear's next-gen blimp (pictures)

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The state-of-the-art airships were developed by Friedrichshafen, Germany's Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), a company with a very long and storied past. For starters, it built the Hindenburg, though it has since substituted non-flammable helium for the hydrogen that exploded in that ship's very famous 1937 crash.

To Greg Poppenhouse, Goodyear's chief airship pilot, going with ZLT's zeppelins made a lot of sense because their three-engine design -- which allows for vectoring the engines -- lets the pilot hover, something the current blimps, with their two fixed engines, can't do. The ability to hover means being able to give the director of, say, the TV broadcast of a football game, exactly the shot he or she wants.

At the same time, because the zeppelin's engines are much higher up on the ship's rigid frame, and aren't right next to the gondola, as they are with the non-rigid blimp, passengers will be able to talk to each other without needing headsets.

All in all, said Poppenhouse, Goodyear is simply interested in "trying to go with the latest technology."

There's only one issue.

For decades, the company's airships have been known by everyone as the "Goodyear blimp." That's how the general public knows the airships. So even though it is going with zeppelins, Nancy Ray, Goodyear's director of global airship operations, told me when I visited Akron as part of Road Trip 2013, "We will still call it the Goodyear blimp."

These days, Goodyear is building the first of its next-generation blimps at its 800-foot-long Wingfoot Lake hangar, just outside Akron. It hopes to unveil the first one later this year, and then ship it off, most likely to Florida. Then it will start building the second zeppelin here in 2015, and deliver it to California in 2016. Finally, Akron itself will get to keep its own zeppelin in 2018, and at that point, all three of the current blimps will have all been decommissioned.

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Goodyear is hopeful that the next-gen airships will give it much more flexibility for shooting sporting events, and will even help it add many more golf tournaments to its already busy schedule of events. That's because the zeppelins are much quieter -- something that's essential for golf -- and because TV broadcast directors won't have to worry about the ship's shadow moving around and distracting players, Poppenhouse said.

When they're launched the zeppelins will be the only airships of their kind in the United States, but they won't be the first that ZLT made for an American company. California's now-defunct Airship Ventures flew its own zeppelin for several years, starting in 2008, and thousands of passengers got the chance to fly slowly and gracefully at just 1,000 feet over some of the country's most beautiful places. But Airship Ventures failed as a business, and that zeppelin was quietly dismantled and its parts sent back to Friedrichshafen.

Goodyear's zeppelins will essentially be the same as that of Airship Ventures, with a length of 246 feet -- compared to the current blimps' 192 feet. But Goodyear plans on some specific modifications to the electronics and systems that will let it use the new blimps as flying television camera platforms, as well as advertisements for Goodyear tires.

But will the new blimps -- or zeppelins, or whatever you want to call them -- still have the familiar Goodyear livery? According to Ed Ogden, the public relations manager for the Spirit of Goodyear, the new airships will definitely be emblazoned with "Goodyear," but there will be something more. Ogden gave a grin but wouldn't say what that would be.