Whatever happened to the Goodyear blimp?
I came across a stray item the other day, a news release by the German Zeppelin NT (for neue Technologie) corporation ("making new airships since 2001") in which the company denied that they had just been bought by John Travolta. Indeed, they had had no offer from John—or anyone else, for that matter. I have no idea how that will turn out, nor am I particularly interested, but the word "Zeppelin" naturally called forth the word "blimp" in my mind. Then, just as naturally, "Goodyear blimp." And then my wife's dear old uncle Massimo popped into my head, the only one I have ever known personally to hitch a ride on one of those famous airships.
Naples in the 1970s
In the 1970s, there was a Goodyear blimp, the Europa, moored up in Cisterna, near Rome, as an advertising vehicle for the Goodyear factory there. (That factory closed in the 1980s and the blimp went with it.) But the craft made visits to Naples once in a while, just a short flight down the coast. Massimo was a gentle old soul who never got to follow his wanderlust. He whiled away hours at the train station, vicariously coming and going with all those on the move, and when the song of the open road got unbearably loud in his heart, he would go up to Capodichino airport and watch planes take off. Then one day magic struck him right out of the blue—literally out of the blue. The Goodyear blimp was moored at the Naples airport one day when Massimo was there. He was close enough to hear the captain yell out, "We have room for a passenger. Anyone want a ride?" Uncle apparently trampled a number of much larger and stronger mammals to death as he ran out to get that one ride he had waited his whole life for. He spent an hour floating above his native city, and the experience was one of the few things he ever got really excited about when it came round to telling stories at family gatherings. ("Oh, no. Is he going to talk about the blimp, again? What's for dessert?")
I haven't seen that blimp in a while. Goodyear went out of the business of mass producing those vehicles years ago after a history that began in 1925 when it took over the Zeppelin company as part of WW1 reparations from Germany. It even built American airships under the corporate name of Goodyear Zeppelin until the German half of that name was prudently dropped in WW2. Through wartime service and up until 1962 when the US Navy dropped the contract, the company made more than 300 airships. In those days, US Navy blimps flew submarine-watch patrols between Lakehurst (New Jersey) and Bermuda. They say that any headwind for the trip back to New Jersey was considered a good excuse to force another day's layover in Bermuda. It was a good job.
Today, there are only three "real" Goodyear blimps (that is, actually built by Goodyear), all of them stationed in the United States. There are, however, about 25 newer airships flying today, most of them made since 1989 by the American Blimp Corporation (ABC) in Oregon. (New blimps are small compared to the old ones. The modern ABC craft are about 60 meters (180 feet) long. The old Zeppelins, including the Hindenburg, which crashed in Lakehurst, NJ, in 1937, were over 800 feet in length. (By the way, the Hindenburg disaster [photo, left] was not the greatest one in airship history. There were 37 deaths out of 70 passengers and crew. The worst loss of life was when the USS Akron, a military airship, went down at sea off the New Jersey coast in 1933, killing all but 3 of the 76 persons aboard.)
A few modern craft are made by the new Zeppelin corporation mentioned above. (Today, that company runs tours over Lake Constance from their airfield in Friedrichshafen, Germany.) Goodyear has purchased four of the newer airships from ABC. Two of them are stationed in Europe: The Spirit of Europe I and The Spirit of Europe II. The former was in the skies over Rome for the 2000 millennium celebration, but it didn't come to Naples. I do recall seeing the Fuji blimp over Naples a few years ago, though—but, come on, who wants to ride in the Fuji blimp! Are you kidding? I do. Mr. Fuji-san, bwana-sahib, if you are reading this...
(For a related item, see "Zeppelin raid on Naples")
update: May 2011