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A Brief History of the Goodyear Blimp

goodyearIf you tuned in to Game 1 of the National League Championship Series last night, you were treated to spectacular aerial views of Dodger Stadium and greater Los Angeles courtesy of one of Goodyear’s blimps. America’s most recognizable airships, the tire and rubber company’s “Aerial Ambassadors,” travel more than 100,000 miles each year to cover more than 80 sporting events. Here’s a brief history of how Goodyear’s blimps have evolved.

What’s a Blimp?

A blimp is simply a balloon filled with nonflammable helium and propelled by an engine. Goodyear blimps are powered by two aircraft engines. Lt. A.D. Cunningham of Great Britain’s Royal Navy Air Service is often credited with coining the term “blimp.” As the story goes, Cunningham, who commanded an air station in England during World War I, plucked the material of His Majesty’s Airship SS-12 and it made a strange sound. “Blimp,” is how Cunningham supposedly described it.

The Goodyear Blimp’s Origins

pilgrim-blimpGoodyear has manufactured over 300 airships since the company was founded in 1898. In March 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels awarded contracts to four American firms for the construction of 16 non-rigid airships, of which nine were to be produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Two years later, a Goodyear-owned airship being tested for future passenger service caught fire and crashed through the glass roof of a Chicago building, killing 11 people. Determined to maintain its position as America’s leading manufacturer of airships, Goodyear purchased the rights and patents to build zeppelin-style airships in 1924. One year later, Goodyear launched the Pilgrim, the first commercial non-rigid airship flown using helium.

World War II and Beyond

Goodyear provided at least two different types of airships for the Navy during World War II. The first airships were rigid and served as airborne aircraft carriers, but proved difficult to handle in certain conditions and were destroyed. Goodyear later provided non-rigid airships capable of aerial surveillance, which the Navy made use of until 1962. Today, Goodyear operates three non-rigid airships, or blimps: the Spirit of Goodyear (based in Akron, Ohio), the Spirit of America (Carson, Calif.), and the Spirit of Innovation (Pompano Beach, Fla.). The Spirit of Innovation, which was christened in 2006 and is filled with 20,000 cubic feet of helium, is the newest blimp in the fleet and the first to be named by the public in a “name-the-blimp” contest.

Goodyear Enters the Sports Arena

Two years before the Navy discontinued its blimp program, Goodyear pioneered the use of blimps to provide aerial coverage at sporting events.

In 1960, the first images from a camera installed on one of Goodyear’s blimps were broadcast on national television from Miami’s Orange Bowl.

The technology has improved dramatically since then, including the introduction of gyrostabilized camera mounts in 1984. All three blimps in Goodyear’s current fleet feature electronic sign technology and can display text, animation, and video. Cruising high above the action at Super Bowls, playoff games, NASCAR and horse races, and golf tournaments, the Goodyear blimp’s purpose is to see and be seen, and not only by the fans in attendance. If the Goodyear blimp is at an event that you’re watching on television, you’ll know it, and not only because of its distinctive shots. At some point during the game, the broadcasters will announce that aerial coverage has been provided by Goodyear, and they might even mention the name of the blimp’s pilot. The recognition accomplishes the same goal as a 30-second commercial for Goodyear, which will receive a lot of airtime in the coming weeks. “I’d say baseball is where we receive the most recognition,” Goodyear public relations manager Jerry Jenkins told FoxSportsBiz.com in 2000. “During the baseball playoffs in October, our fleet of three blimps can be on the air for as many as 12 to 15 days in the month.”

The Goodyear Blimp on the Big Screen

black-sunday
The tagline for John Frankenheimer’s 1977 film, Black Sunday, sounds like it’s straight out of Beyond Balderdash: “Members of the Black September terrorist group plot to kill thousands of Americans at the Super Bowl in Miami by using a specially designed dart-gun in a hijacked Goodyear blimp.”

The movie was based on Thomas Harris’s best-selling novel and filmed at the Orange Bowl before and during Super Bowl X between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. An actual Goodyear blimp was used for some of the scenes, while the nose of a blimp was recreated and supported by a crane for the scene in which the blimp enters the stadium.

Other Blimps

While Goodyear’s are the most iconic, other companies, including Budweiser, Fuji Film and MetLife, have advertised with their own blimps over the years. MetLife has brought attention to itself since 1987 via the Snoopy One and Snoopy Two blimps, which provide aerial coverage of more than 60 events each year. Tomorrow, MetLife-owned blimps will hover above the Cotton Bowl for the Red River Shootout between Oklahoma and Texas, and be in South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame plays host to USC. The Fuji Film blimp was used by the New York Police Department to assist in patrolling Madison Square Garden during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

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