Lighter Than Air

I’ve always been fascinated with dirigibles. This week, watching the Goodyear blimp floating above Tulsa covering the PGA, reminded me of the day I got a ride on the iconic airship.

My memory is fuzzy on the exact year, but it was early Seventies, so I was 10 or 12 years old. Dad, like a lot of Tulsa dads, worked for American Airlines. In the Seventies he was an inspector in the Gear & Brake Shop, which dealt with a lot of Goodyear products. As I understood it, the Goodyear rep offered him two tickets to ride the blimp during it’s upcoming visit to Tulsa.

The Columbia was a true blimp, unlike the current generation of Goodyear airships.

We drove out to Harvey Young Airport, a grass air strip on the east side of Tulsa. As we approached I saw the blimp floating above the field, motionless. As we got closer it slowly grew larger. And bigger. And bigger! As we parked I saw a group of Boy Scouts mingling on the grass landing strip. It turned out they were there to grab the mooring lines as it approached to land!

A nice lady in a Goodyear uniform handed me a brochure entitled Aerial Ambassadors, which I stupidly lost (there were different versions through the years and they occasionally show up on eBay). It explained this particular airship was the Columbia, call sign N3A, one of three operated by Goodyear at the time. These were the second generation of blimps built by Goodyear for promotional purposes (previously surplus Navy blimps had been used). Each was 192 feet (58 m) long and powered by a pair of Continental O-200 engines, the same engine used on a Cessna 150.

Goodyear Blimp Brochure from the 70s

When the time came to hop aboard I was surprised when Dad didn’t join me. He just told me to go ahead in his typical non-verbose manner. I wasn’t sure why he didn’t want to ride along. As I climbed into the gondola my perceptions of a palatial airship cabin quickly changed. Now I understood why my father was watching from the ground. With seating for only six this was definitely no Hindenburg! I took a seat behind the pilot. Once the other five passengers were situated, I watched in fascination as the Boy Scouts and ground crew fed out the ropes attached to the nose and we slowly rose from the ground.

The idling engines roared to life and we began moving forward. The noise was deafening, mostly because the small engines were mounted directly to the aluminum gondola. As I recall the ride over Tulsa lasted 30-40 minutes. I remember flying over Southland shopping center, but otherwise the flight itself was not the memorable part.

My most vivid memories of that ride was the blimp itself– the noise, the smell, the interior cabin. First off, the pilot was seated behind a rather maritime-looking steering wheel, and the vertical control was a huge wheel protruding from the floor beside his seat. I was fascinated watching him pitch the airship up and down by spinning this large wooden wheel. The cabin’s smell reminded me of the interior of the Boeing 707 airliners we flew on each Summer. I also remember the rear wall of the cabin. That might sound strange, but the controls for the electrical lights and signage were in the rear bulkhead. This gaggle of wires and buttons was hidden by a Formica cover featuring a decorative illustration of balloons, blimps and Zeppelins through history. Isn’t it strange the things your mind decides to latch on to?

Wingfoot One, the airship that visited Tulsa for the PGA.

It seemed like no time at all and we were hovering over Harvey Young airport. The blimp slowly descended as the ground crew rushed out to grab the mooring lines. Once we were closer to the ground the Boy Scouts all joined in and the group pulled each line perpendicular to the blimp, like an obtuse tug of war. The drone of the engines ceased and finally the single landing gear thumped to the ground.

And so ended my brief adventure: I was no longer lighter than air.

The current blimps are quite different from the Columbia. In fact, since they have a semi-rigid frame they actually aren’t blimps at all. This new type were designed by the Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik company (yes, that Zeppelin) and introduced in 2012. For more information than you ever wanted to know read about the history and design on the Goodyear blimp’s Wikipedia page. And to keep track of the nearest Goodyear blimp follow their Facebook page.

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