Making Goodyear's next-gen blimp (pictures)

The tire giant is building three brand-new zeppelins to replace its famous airships. Few have seen the work in progress. But CNET Road Trip 2013 got a sneak peek.

Daniel Terdiman
1 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The new Goodyear blimp

AKRON, Ohio -- Anyone who has ever watched a major sporting event on TV is no doubt familiar with the famous Goodyear blimp. For decades, the tire giant's airships have flown over events of all kinds, providing aerial footage even as they advertise the company's tires.

But now Goodyear is getting ready to retire its three American-made blimps and replace them with three zeppelins designed by Germany's Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT).

Why? For three main reasons. First, zeppelins fly differently than Goodyear's traditional blimps and offer television event directors the ability to have cameras essentially hover overhead and get better, more consistent shots. Second, the new airships are quieter. And finally, they fly faster, longer, and more efficiently.

Though Goodyear announced its plans in 2011, few have seen the company's progress as it builds its new zeppelins -- which it will continue to call blimps in order to maintain the "Goodyear blimp" brand. But on Road Trip 2013, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped in at the company's Wingfoot Lake blimp operations near Akron and got a firsthand look at how the new zeppelin is coming together.

2 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Zeppelin and its skin

Goodyear is building the new zeppelin -- which it will still market as a blimp -- inside its Wingfoot Lake airship hangar near Akron, Ohio. The company hopes to formally unveil the new airship later this year, and will begin making the second of three zeppelins in 2015. It should complete construction of the third by 2018. The three zeppelins will replace the blimps that Goodyear currently bases at Akron, Carson, Calif., and Pompano Beach, Fla.

Goodyear purchased the design, and the components for the new zeppelins from Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, which is based in Friedrichshafen, Germany. But Goodyear is building the airships in its Akron hangar, and making several modifications to the standard zeppelin NT design.

Currently, construction of the first new blimp is well under way, with the ship's frame already put together and its skin slowly being stretched out over its full length.

3 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The rear frame

A look at the rear end of the frame of the next-generation Goodyear blimp, which is a zeppelin NT designed by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT). The new airship is being built jointly by Goodyear and ZLT personnel inside Goodyear's 800-foot-long Wingfoot Lake hangar.

Unlike a traditional blimp, which is essentially just a giant inflated bag, a zeppelin has a rigid frame.

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Zeppelin NT

Goodyear is replacing its familiar blimps with zeppelins like this one, seen in 2008 and flown by California's now-defunct Airship Ventures. The zeppelins are designed by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), from Friedrichshafen, Germany, and feature three propellers instead of two, and a design that allows the airship to hover like a helicopter. That's one of the primary reasons Goodyear is switching airship platforms, given that being able to hover over a sporting event should allow event TV directors to order specific shots.

Compared with a traditional blimp (see next photo), a zeppelin is longer and has a slightly less oval silhouette.

5 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET


The Spirit of Goodyear, one of the tire giant's existing three blimps, seen flying near the company's Wingfoot Lake hangar, outside Akron, Ohio. A blimp has a rounder, shorter silhouette than the zeppelins that the company will begin flying later this year.

6 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Zeppelin gondola

The gondola on a zeppelin -- as seen on Airship Ventures' Eureka -- is larger and more comfortable than that of Goodyear's traditional blimps. In addition to seating 12 people instead of 6, the zeppelin's gondola is also much quieter because the engines are not directly outside. That means passengers can talk normally and don't need to wear headsets to hear each other.

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Blimp gondola

The gondola found on Goodyear's traditional blimps is smaller and more cramped, and requires passengers to talk to each other using a headset, because the engines are directly outside.

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Blimp from right front

A look at Goodyear's new blimp, which is being built inside its Akron, Ohio hangar. The tire giant is switching from traditional blimps to zeppelins, which are longer, faster, quieter, and can hover over events instead of having to circle around them.

9 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Straight on

Though Goodyear's new zeppelins will be the world's largest airships, they're dwarfed by the size of the tire giant's hangar outside Akron, Ohio.

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Up and under

A look at the underside of the frame of the new Goodyear blimp, which is being built at the tire company's Akron, Ohio, airship hangar in conjunction with personnel from Germany's Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, which designed it.

11 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Sliding skin over the top

Because the zeppelin has a rigid frame, it's built by first constructing the frame and then slowly stretching the skin over the top. By comparison, a blimp is made by starting with the skin on the ground and slowly inflating it.

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These weights are being used to hold down the ropes that are holding up the skin as it is slowly and methodically pulled over the zeppelin's rigid frame.

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Triangular truss

The zeppelin features these triangular trusses, made from lightweight composite materials, that help maintain its structure.

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Underside skin

Though it appears that the yellow frame is the zeppelin's bottom, it is actually only its middle. The fabric seen underneath the frame will be pulled all the way to the airship's far (rear) end, and once fully enclosed, the zeppelin will be inflated using helium, which will raise the frame up well off the floor.

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Full frame

The full Goodyear zeppelin construction, as seen from the rear from an elevated platform at the tire giant's Akron, Ohio, airship hangar.

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The three fins for the new Goodyear blimp sit on the floor alongside the airship.

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Zeppelin gondola

The interior of a zeppelin's gondola is spacious, airy, and comfortable. This photograph was taken inside the gondola of the Eureka, which belonged to California-based Airship Ventures, which has gone out of business. The Eureka was dismantled and its components were sent back to Friedrichshafen, Germany, home of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, the company that made it, and which designed and is helping Goodyear construct its new zeppelins.

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Bathroom window

Perhaps the most important part of a zeppelin NT is its bathroom, which features a window from which to enjoy the view.

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Rear propellers

Unlike a traditional Goodyear blimp, which has only two engines, mounted just outside the gondola, a zeppelin has three engines, two of which are on either side of the airship's center, and a third at its very rear. Because it has three engines, a zeppelin can hover like a helicopter.

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Rotating engine

Another advantage of a zeppelin is that its engines can rotate, allowing for much more agile movement.

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On truck mast

A zeppelin, seen in the Friedrichshafen, Germany, hangar of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, mounts to a mast that is attached to a long arm off a special truck.

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Blimp mast

A blimp's mast, by comparison, is a much larger, more cumbersome construction, as seen here, with the Spirit of Goodyear linked up to its pyramid-shaped mast at Goodyear's Akron, Ohio, airship operations headquarters.

23 of 24 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from a zeppelin

Another advantage -- at least to the passengers -- of a zeppelin, is that its gondola has a large rear window, which allows those on board to see behind the airship. That's how CNET's Daniel Terdiman photographed the Golden Gate Bridge from the now-deconstructed zeppelin Eureka in 2012.

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Zeppelin silhouette

The silhouette of a zeppelin reveals a much slimmer airship than a traditional Goodyear blimp.

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