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Spirit of Goodyear blimp’s last Akron-area flights bring out the memories

By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer

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SUFFIELD TOWNSHIP: The Spirit of Goodyear blimp’s farewell flights around Akron this week are jogging memories — as the flights are intended to.

“I just love the blimp,” said Thomas Pascu, an Akron resident who stopped by with his Boston ­terrier, Satchmo, at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake airship base to watch the blimp Wednesday afternoon.

Pascu, now 66, has a special attachment to Goodyear blimps: His late father, John, actually wrote the manual on how to build one.

“I have the original. It’s a binder,” Pascu said. “Dad wrote it all and typed it all out.”

The company used his father’s manual for decades, including the last Goodyear blimp to be built, the Florida-based Spirit of Innovation that first flew in 2006.

“My dad was senior engineer,” Pascu said. “My dad used to go to [an airship base in] Lakehurst, N.J., all the time.”

Goodyear this week announced that the 13-year-old Spirit of Goodyear permanently leaves on Friday and will stay in Florida for the winter and for eventual decommissioning next year. The blimp will be replaced locally by a much larger, high-tech, semi-rigid airship currently called the Goodyear NT (for New Technology) that is being built inside the Wingfoot Lake hangar.

On Wednesday, Goodyear invited local media to fly with the blimp around the greater Akron area. The sky was clear and the blimp was making about 30 knots, with a tailwind, at an altitude of about 1,200 feet.

“This is a good day for flying,” said Jerry Hissem, chief pilot for the Spirit of Goodyear and a native of Cuyahoga Falls.

13 years at helm

Hissem reminisced about the blimp, including its commissioning in March 2000, as he guided the Spirit of Goodyear toward Akron late in the morning. (The blimp succeeded the Spirit of Akron, when a stripped steering gear led to a crash in October 1999 near Wingfoot Lake.)

Hissem said he has about 6,000 hours of flying time in the Spirit of Goodyear over 13 years.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I was there the first day it was flown. Hopefully, I’ll be there the last day it’s flown.”

He’s taken the blimp to televise countless sporting events. Hissem said when he was floating over the professional drag racing strip in Norwalk, Ohio, the sound from the powerful top-fuel racers actually shook the blimp’s massive, helium filled bag.

“New York City is nice to look at, Manhattan at night with the lights,” he said. “We’ve been up to Montreal. We’ve been out to Arkansas. It’s been down to Florida before.”

Wednesday’s clear skies and strong sun meant the blimp cast a large shadow on the ground.

Hissem noted the strong shadow as he steered over the University of Akron campus.

“I can’t do loops but I can put the shadow on the football field,” he said. He managed to get the blimp’s shadow to cross over the 50-yard line.

Among the celebrities Hissem has flown are talk show host David Letterman and actor Kurt Russell.

And the longest he has had to pilot the blimp was about 13½ hours, he said.

“I’d stay up here all day, though. I absolutely love it,” Hissem said.

The new Goodyear NT, while significantly larger, will be less physically taxing to fly than the current three-blimp fleet of GZ20A models, Hissem said. The blimp cockpit controls require the pilot’s physical effort to move the elevator and rudder, while the NT airship uses a joystick with “fly by wire” electronics to activate motors that will move those parts, he said.

Hissem was far from alone in reminiscing.

Saying goodbye

The entire Goodyear crew that maintains and travels with the blimp has been reliving memories, said Nancy Ray, director of Goodyear’s global airship program. Crew members have lived and worked with the blimp for more than 13 years, she noted.

“We’re really sad. They’re very sentimental,” she said. “It’s almost like a living, breathing thing.”

Plus, taking care of and traveling with a Goodyear blimp is a big responsibility, she said.

“It has the Goodyear brand all over it,” Ray said.

She noted that the major components of the Goodyear NT will be installed in the next month or two. The airship should be all-but-finished in December, she said. Its first flight is tentatively scheduled for March. Goodyear has not yet named the airship.

As part of its farewell this week, the Spirit of Goodyear is displaying special messages.

The blimp’s lightboard is flashing:

• “Thanks for the memories, Akron!”

• “I am heading south to retire ... look for my new big brother next year”

• “Share your favorite memories of me on Facebook & Twitter”

• And “We are waving at you from up here, too.”

The blimp leaves for good Friday morning and heads to State College, Pa., to televise Saturday’s Penn State-Michigan football game and then works its way south.

Back at the Wingfoot Lake observation area, Munroe Falls resident Bob Streharsky stood next to Pascu as they both looked out at the now-moored blimp.

“I’ve been coming out here since 1959. Always fascinated with them,” Streharsky said. He said on Wednesday he shot more than 900 digital pictures, at 10-frames-per-second, of the Spirit of Goodyear as it took off and landed for a “stop motion” effect.

He said he has tried unsuccessfully for decades to get to fly in a blimp.

He added he would have preferred that one of the old-style Goodyear blimps stay in the Akron area.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s sad but it’s progress,” Streharsky said. “I’m anxious to see the new one.”

Pascu, meanwhile, said he has flown in a Goodyear blimp twice. The first time he was 13 and the second time a year ago when he turned 65, he said.

“It’s quiet, peaceful,” Pascu said. “It was just beautiful.”

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com.


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