Why Yes, I Would Like To Own A Blimp


In all the world of aviation, there is nothing quite like airships and in all the world of airships—it’s a small world—Goodyear is the King Dog. They’ve got the Wingfoot Three at Oshkosh this week and colleague Mariano Rosales and I spent part of an afternoon watching them run the lighter-than-air operation with a few lucky passengers getting on and off. We had many questions. And they have many answers because Goodyear spends a ton of money on these big gas bags so they send people into the field who really like talking about them.

Mariano and I pretty much decided we wanted to have one, so we figured he would buy it and I would provide the hangar. “Ah … you’re gonna need a lot of people, too,” said Jerry Hissem, Goodyear’s chief pilot at the Akron operation, where Wingfoot Three is based. So it looks like we’re gonna need about 19 people, two 65,000-pound Mack trucks equipped with masts, a tractor trailer for support and a load of specialized gear that I’ll explain in the video I’ll post later this week.

For as interesting as blimps are to fly, what I find just as fascinating is that they’re kind of living, breathing things that require constant attention 24/7/365, even when they’re hangared, which isn’t that often because Goodyear wants to get its money’s worth out of the considerable investment these airships represent. If you’re reading this reclined in your sleeping bag in the North 40 Wednesday night, you will have looked at the weather forecast. It’s ugly. Up to 3 inches of rain and gusts to 50 knots around midnight.

The balloon watchstanders—they run three eight-hour shifts—will be busy. With the blimp “on the stick,” the mast truck can handle 90 MPH, although it hasn’t been tested to that. When it gets really nasty, the watchstander gets into the cockpit and flies the thing on the mast, keeping it pointed upwind—which it does on its own, really—and clear enough of the ground to not damage the gondola and the landing gear. If it cools down and gets heavy, which it always does at night, he has to dump water ballast or lose some of the lead shot ballast they carry in bins along the side of the gondola. When the sun comes up and all that helium warms up, it does so fast during the summer, especially if the airship is oriented long side of the envelope facing the rising sun. Superheat, they call this. When I was interviewing watchstander Jay Dewan early Wednesday as the sun was poking over the trees at Pioneer field, he said he might have to excuse himself in a hurry to pump a bunch of water into the ballast tanks to counteract the superheat. (They carry about 1400 pounds.) It would look kinda bad to have the thing standing vertical while we were talking, although the mast can apparently handle this.

Although I didn’t see it, Wingfoot Three was scheduled to drop skydivers during the Wednesday airshow and again on Friday, when some friends of mine from the SOCOM demo team will jump from the airship. Skydivers are a challenge for the blimp. For one thing, Jerry Hissem told me blimps don’t like altitude. He’s never been higher than about 7000 feet in these airships because there’s just no reason to take them that high. The helium expands and lift management becomes tricky. Plus, you can’t see that big Goodyear logo and that is, after all, the point. The Red Bull team was scheduled to exit at 1800 feet, which is about half the opening altitude of the typical skydive. They exited with BASE rigs. Hissem told me the SOCOM team would go to 3000 feet. They’ll take off as heavy as they can to account for losing almost 500 pounds of weight all at once.

As I’m writing this Wednesday night, a vicious line of storms is approaching from the northwest. If you’re camping, I’m there with you in spirit, but not flesh I’m afraid. I’ve camped in the North 40 exactly twice and got thoroughly soaked both times. It always seems to pour at night and it drains pretty poorly out there. We were always in some sort of low spot that made it even worse. There’s more room out there tonight, though. With the scary weather forecast, there was a mass exodus beginning around noon. I can’t say I blame anyone for that. Better a safer port than minimal tiedowns at OSH.

John Deakin RIP

Sad news to report that John Deakin died early Wednesday morning. George Braly relayed the news, but I have no more details than that. He had been in ill health during the past few years. Longtime readers of AVweb will remember John for his excellent series of columns called Pelican’s Perch. These were richly detailed from his experience in an aviation career that most of us could only dream about. During the 1960s, Deakin flew for Air America throughout Southeast Asia and spent many years as a captain for Japan Airlines, eventually retiring on the 747. He had more Pacific crossings than most of us have takeoffs and landings.

I met John virtually through the old CompuServe user group, Avsig, and in the flesh when we flew with Scott Dyer up to Hartford, Connecticut, some years ago to gawk at an An-124 the Russians had flown in for some event or another. I have never known a more thoroughly pleasant, gracious and interesting man. John was a larger than life character, but not the loud kind that let you know about it by making himself the center of attention. We flew together a couple of times in his Bonanza and he always put me in the left seat. He did that with everyone.

It’s trite to say John Deakin was one of a kind. But he was certainly among a very select few.

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  1. Fantastic flying machines! I was a controller at Long Beach, Ca. years ago. N3A, Goodyear Columbia was based nearby just off the San Diego freeway. She would even call and get ILSs to LGB from us. That takes a looong time to vector her around the pattern for one. She would then do a low go down the runway, super pretty at night when all the neon lights would be on. The Captain once asked me if I’d like to see her do a “bag over”. (You gotta think about that one.)

  2. Those were kind words about Deakin-san, Paul. Well said. Our BDL trip with John was to see the An225, the truly Big One. He loved it! And, somehow, he tolerated being in an Archer with the likes of us. I think he was the highest time 747 captain in the world for a while, having become a JAL captain in his 20s….quite the run.

  3. I suppose blimps truly are as close to a boat for the air as you can get. I would love to get a chance to ride in one; even better if I got a chance to try piloting one. I look forward to that video.

    That’s sad to hear about Deakin. I never met him (or Braly for that matter), but I know quite a bit about them from their engine management course that I took virtually a few years back.

  4. It is sad about Deakin-san. He was a pilot who could truly inspire others with his tales and history. I was happy to have listened to some of those stories in person, as well as years of AVSIG. To John, i wish you blue skies and happy flights up there.

  5. John Deakin – Super Aviator, Inspiring Avweb Columnist, Rest In Peace

    “John Deakin started in aviation as a hangar-rat and line boy, worked his way up the aviation food chain via charter, corporate, and cargo flying, then spent five years in Southeast Asia with Air America. He joined Japan Airlines becoming a very senior 747 captain with over 32,000 hours. He also flew his own immaculate V-tail Bonanza (N1BE) and was very active in the war bird and vintage aircraft scene, serving as an instructor in several aircraft and as an FAA Examiner on the Curtiss-Wright C46, his all-time favorite .”

  6. The blimps are truly amazing to watch. Kind of like teaching an elephant to fly. During the last Super Bowl held in Houston, one of the blimps was tethered at my home airport for a few days, when it was not up taking videos for the TV crowd. It was fun to watch it gyrate gently around the mooring pole as the breeze steered it under the watchful eyes of the ground crew. A ride would be a definite experience of a lifetime.

    Sad to hear about John Deakin. I never got the chance to meet him in person, but I never heard anyone say an unkind word about the man. I thoroughly enjoy reading his articles on Pelican’s Perch. One that is particularly timely now is his views on finding a drop-in replacement fuel for 100LL. He will be missed.

  7. In 2005 I had the pleasure to fly in the Fuji Blimp, which at the time was the biggest and fastest blimp with Porsche ducted fan engines, on-board bathroom & nice big leather chairs. It was truly a first class experience. I was granted some time at the yoke where my only instruction from the Captain was, “just follow the rope”. It was also on that ride I think I asked the stupidest aviation question I’ve ever uttered. After gazing at all the fancy avionics I said, “So you guys can fly IFR?”, to which the co-pilot said, “Um…we can, but it kind of defeats the purpose and our sponsor would be very unhappy if we flew in clouds”.

  8. 20 years ago I had the chance to be a passenger on the WDL-1b blimp in Germany. It was built in 1988 and was 60m long, a traditional blimp with two gondola mounted 200hp Contis , reversible propellers and 7 passenger seats.
    As it was a very hot summer day we took off with only the pilot, my friend who had won this trip and me.
    It was a very strange experience as it had nothing to do with flying as I was used to in my gliders or other aircraft. It was really a ship!
    Every thermal we entered lifted the nose while the pilot was running the elevator wheel to keep it low, then we drove through the rising air, exited and the tail was lifted while the pilot ran the elevator wheel backwards. One of the most prominent instruments was an inclinometer that regularly showed angles of plus or minus 30° while we were on board! It was like being in the navy again on a destroyer in heavy weather, only that the ship rolled while we pitched … .
    The windows could be rolled down like in a car and we had a cool breeze in the gondola going less than 50kph. But as the engines and propellers were directly to the side of the cabin it was enormously noisy, I feared for my hearing.
    Once in a while we would graze a thermal and the blimp started to oscillate on the roll axis. Really a ship!
    For landing the pilot sort of drove the blimp into the ground applying nose down elevator after touch down, then the ground crew catched the ropes while running, fanned out, held the nose down and full reverse was applied to stop the blimp. During the whole time the pilot was applying very large control inputs on the elevator wheel and on the rudder. The rudder had pedals large enough to be stomped on with both feet on each side and the pilot did so several times during landing. No boosted controls. I have never seen another pilot having to work that much physically in a cockpit.
    Then the blimp was pulled to the mast by the ground crew and we could exit. Slowly and while exiting some ballast was added immediately. An unforgettable 2h flight.
    Unfortunately this blimp was destroyed in an enormous thunderstorm in 2014. But a new one was built using salvaged parts and a spare gondola.

    • Interesting thanks.

      Doesn’t sound viable for a passenger service, but perhaps in remote areas as it does not require much of a paved runway.

      There have been proposals for using airships in remote areas such as northern Canada. Lockheed-Martin has been pitching a double-bubble (sideways) design.

      Sounds to me as though variation in weight with cargo is a key challenge, perhaps compressing and expanding helium would be feasible. (Well, I better think that through from basics – the stuff would still be on board so lifted.) Do not want to waste helium at today’s prices (there are people working on producing much more helium, some natural gas wells have an amount worth extracting).

      Winds we know are a challenge, some places are windy (like the south Peace River block of NE BC, wind funnels through a pass, wind turbines are viable there).

      • There was a plan to use Lockheed-Martin airships to carry ‘heavy rare earth’ ore from a mine on the Quebec-Labrador border to a railhead to the southwest.

        I presume northbound payload would be supplies like fuels to operate the mine. With crew rotation both ways.

        However the Quest mine company was filing for bankruptcy in 2018. I suspect volatility of metal prices and cost of access and development discouraged potential investors.

        The plan is on Lockheed-Martin’s airship website.

        That mine may have been the one that earlier planned to concentrate or near the mine then transport the result by ship, trucking it a significant distance to an ocean dock.

        (‘Heavy’ rare earth elements are apparently more in demand or shorter in supply than ‘light’, I presume the weight label comes from position in the periodic table of elements.)

  9. Wingfoot 3 is not a blimp. It is an Airship of the Zeppelin type as it has a rigid framework with three longitudinal backbones, where the gondola, the engines, trim bags and the three tail surfaces are mounted to. This framework is inside the envelope which is filled with helium and is kept inflated by pressurized air in the ballonets. And it was in fact built by the Zeppelin Airship company in Friedrichshafen in Germany. It has three engines with propellers that can be rotated to provide vertical thrust, two on the sides and one in the back that runs an additional tail propeller for yawing like a helicopter. The Zeppelin NT type, as it is called, is fly-by-wire controlled and can hover and maneuver like a helicopter (a really slow one). Due to the possible vertical thrust it is usually operated in a heavier than air mode with a few dozen kg of weight. And therefore it is flying and not driving. It will have some angle of attack to generate some lift while cruising.

  10. Goodyear’s airships are about as far from being a “blimp” as Falcon 9 is from a bottle rocket.
    Carbon fiber airframe, articulated props, internal engines, glass cockpit, fly-by-wire.
    If Goodyear has a image problem with flying a Zeppelin they need to get out of the flying business.

  11. I was fortunate to have met John Deakin at OSH circa 1999.

    Someone set up an area for Avsig types to congregate, Doctor Brent Blue hoisted a plucked chicken but no bbq as plastic is tough to chew.

    Walter from Louisiana was there with his Beech 18, still with roundies and tailwheel but IIRC single-pieced windshield, I forget if tail was original or single

    Probably Braly too but he’d have been busy at a booth much of the time.

    Braley, Deakin, and Walter were running pilot training seminars our of GAMI at one time. ‘Lean of peak’ operation no doubt included.

    John wrote at least one book. https://www.advancedpilot.com/apsstore.html, IIRC a second was less formal.

    • Veering off on Beech 18s, BC politician Flying Phil Gagliardi had what may have been the most modified Beech 18, IIRC:
      – one-piece windshield
      – tricycle landing gear
      – single tail
      – turboprop engines
      I was up close to it once in 1966, but did not learn why he put so much into an old airplane. Granted, in those days some people had small bombers like B-25s as executive aircraft (awkward cabin with wing through fuselage).

      And he did use it, all over the province as Minister of Transport.

  12. Whenever someone asks me, “Would you like to fly that [aircraft]?”
    The answer is always “Yes!”