My Ohio: Seeing Blimps

Living on the flight path of the Goodyear airship is an awe-inspiring experience.

I usually hear the Goodyear blimp long before I see it. I don’t care what time the blimp flies over my house or what I am doing. When I catch its loud, distinctive hum, I run outside to admire the giant in the sky. At night, I flick my porch light off and on hoping to be rewarded with a brilliant American flag electronically flashing on the blimp’s envelope, an acknowledgment of my salute.

If I ever sell my house, I will tell potential buyers that the best thing about living where I do is that I am on the flight path of the Goodyear blimp. The Spirit of Goodyear lives in a massive hangar at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s Wingfoot Lake Airship base in Suffield Township, just outside Akron. It flies north to Cleveland for aerial coverage of sporting events and other festivities in good weather. I suppose most people would rather buy a house with a pool or a three-car garage. But I’ll take a blimp path.

My love affair with blimps started when I was a young girl, even though I was terrified when I saw my first one. I was sure green aliens in a spaceship were invading the earth. But I was instantly hooked.

Of course, I mostly have Goodyear to thank. The company built its first helium–filled, public relations airship, The Pilgrim, in 1925. It built more than 300 airships, more than any other company in the world, and was the center of blimp manufacturing until it stopped mass producing the airships. Today Goodyear operates three blimps, including the one residing in northern Ohio.

In 2002, I watched four Goodyear blimps flying in formation in honor of the christening of a new blimp — a sight that hadn’t been seen in decades. And I have toured the huge airdock in Suffield, a building so big they say it has its own weather and rains inside even if the sun is shining outside.

But it wasn’t a Goodyear blimp in which I actually took to the sky. It was the Shamu blimp in the early 1990s. The blimp, whose polyurethane skin was designed to look like a killer whale, was leased by SeaWorld from Airship International as a floating billboard. The whale airship lived in Orlando, Fla., but made several visits to the former SeaWorld of Ohio in Portage County’s Aurora.

Flying in a blimp is like riding on a humongous, soft marshmallow. You don’t really bounce along on clouds, but it feels like it. It is incredibly peaceful and gentle, and I hope there are blimps in heaven.

The pilot told me to watch for the “dish-towel effect” when we flew over residential areas. That stumped me until I saw people run from their houses when we passed by. They used dish towels to wave hello to the massive black-and-white marine animal swimming through the sky.

I still cherish my SeaWorld Blimp lapel pin that I was given for “flying” Shamu. (OK, they let me “take the controls,” but trust me, Shamu was never in danger of getting hung up in treetops.)

There have been airship disasters in Ohio, however. Goodyear’s Spirit of Akron crashed in 1999, but fortunately neither of the two people on board was badly hurt. The fate of 43 people on board the U.S.S. Shenandoah in 1925 was not so fortunate. A violent storm shook and tore the naval airship apart over Noble County. A historical marker now identifies the site of the tragedy where 14 people died.

The Shenandoah was a rigid airship with an internal frame that maintained its form. Goodyear’s blimps in its current fleet are classified as nonrigid, with the pressure of the internal nonflammable helium holding the shape. Last year, the company announced it will deflate its current blimps in favor of semi-rigid ships. Goodyear and Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik of Germany will build the longer and faster airships in Ohio. The first new blimp is scheduled for service in 2014.

In my daily life I try to act mature and sophisticated as much as possible, if for no other reason than to not embarrass my adult children and grandchildren. But all bets are off when a blimp flies overhead.

Ohioans should be proud of the state’s lofty connection to the history of American airships. I am. So whenever I hear the mighty hum, I grab a dish towel.

Jill Sell, an Ohio Magazine contributing editor, is based in Sagamore Hills.