By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
SUFFIELD TWP.: The first of three Goodyear state-of-the-art airships, which will replace the current fleet of its iconic but outdated blimps, is approaching the halfway construction mark just southeast of the company’s home city of Akron.
Workers at the tire maker’s Wingfoot Lake airship hangar have started hanging a DuPont polyester skin over the $21 million airship’s aluminum and carbon fiber framework.
And that large, but lightweight frame is one of the major differences between Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s three U.S.-based blimps and the new airship. Blimps do not have an internal frame or skeleton – they basically are a massive bag filled with nonflammable helium with a gondola cabin and engines strapped on.
This new semi-rigid airship technically is a dirigible, meaning it does have an internal frame. It is a joint venture between Goodyear and German company ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik.
Goodyear will continue to call the new airships “blimps,” which the company acknowledges will grate with aviation purists.
“People get very technical. What we’re building here is not a blimp, let me clear about that. It is an airship,” said Ed Ogden, spokesman for the Wingfoot Lake airship operations. “But we like to call it Goodyear Blimp NT. The reason being, it’s a popular name [and] we don’t see the general public wanting to make that change.”
No matter what people call them, the new airship will continue to be the Akron company’s globally recognized goodwill ambassadors and a major marketing tool that provides aerial coverage of sporting and other events.
The new airships will replace what Goodyear calls its GZ20A blimp model, whose design dates to 1968. (Goodyear has been building blimps since 1919.)
The new Zeppelin-manufactured airship will have three engines instead of two. It will be 246 feet long, making it about 50 feet longer than the blimps. The new airship is also a bit wider, not quite as high and will have a much quieter and roomier cabin.
Different color scheme
The new airship will also be getting a different, undisclosed color scheme while still being instantly recognizable as a Goodyear blimp, Ogden said.
“The work that remains to be done is very detailed,” said Nancy Ray, Goodyear’s director of global airship operations. “Once you get the envelope on, there’s a lot of work that will be done inside that’s not very visible to the world. ... We don’t put helium in until the very end.”
Typically, eight to 10 people work each day building the new airship, Ray said. They are a mix of Goodyear employees and Zeppelin employees, she said.
Zeppelin is the manufacturer, she said. “So it is a joint team.”
The work is done inside Goodyear’s 1917-era hangar in Suffield Township that has been extensively cleaned and refurbished. The hangar just barely squeezes in both the under-construction airship and the Spirit of Goodyear — the blimp has to be kept at an angle to fit inside.
“This facility here is the only one, other than in Germany, that is approved to build a Goodyear NT,” Ray said.
Initial planning started in 2007 for the new airships, Ray said.
Jared Haren, project leader, was working to finish the NT airship’s lightning protection system that will shield the high tech electronics the aircraft relies upon. He noted that plans fell through to build a Zeppelin airship in the hangar way back in 1917.
“This is the first [U.S.-built] Zeppelin since 1933, the Macon,” Haren said.
The U.S.S. Macon and sister ship U.S.S. Akron were built by the former Goodyear Zeppelin Corp., later renamed Goodyear Aircraft, in the much larger Akron Airdock.
Among the new technology in the Goodyear NT are three vectoring prop engines, meaning they swivel up and down.
Flies like a copter
“So, it takes off and lands like a helicopter,” she said. “It’s all fly-by-wire, high tech, glass cockpit, beautiful. It will be fabulous, really.”
Greg Poppenhouse, Goodyear’s chief airship pilot, over the past 2½ years has spent about 180 hours flying a similar Zeppelin airship in Germany. He is helping train Goodyear’s other pilots on the new airship.
The technology used to fly the current blimp fleet has not changed much since the 1930s, Poppenhouse noted.
The Zeppelin, on the other hand, uses modern technology, he said.
“It’s a very unique experience,” Poppenhouse said. “It’s much like flying a helicopter when you land and take off. Flying in the air is much like flying a plane. You have a joystick that controls your pitch and your lateral movements. It’s a very enjoyable experience for the passengers. It’s very quiet.”
The airship now being built will replace the Spirit of Goodyear blimp that is housed at the Wingfoot Lake hangar. The name for the new airship has not been announced.
Goodyear announced in May 2011 that it will be replacing its three U.S. blimps with the Zeppelins. Construction started earlier this year. Two more NTs will be built over the next several years.
First flight in 2014
Work on the initial airship is expected to be finished by January, with the first flight sometime in March 2014.
Goodyear and Zeppelin have had a decades-long relationship. The GZ in GZ20A blimp designation stands for Goodyear Zeppelin — even though the blimp manufacturer technically is Lockheed Martin.
So, you might have anticipated that the GZ designation would be retained. Instead, the NT stands for New Technology.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org