AKRON (March 10, 2014) — At the tender age of 14, the “Spirit of Goodyear” airship took its final aerial coverage flight at the Daytona 500 race Feb. 23 at Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s reached the end of its life cycle. So, like most people, it went down South to enjoy its retirement,” mused Doug Grassian, a senior manager, airship communications at Goodyear.
The airship was Goodyear’s longest continuously operated airship and went into retirement after the speedway event, which featured a rare appearance by two Goodyear airships at the same time.
Since its launch on March 15, 2000, the “Spirit of Goodyear” covered NASCAR races, as well as some of America’s biggest events, Goodyear said, including the NFL playoffs, MLB All-Star Games, NBA Finals, Preakness, Belmont States, U.S. Opens, and NCAA football games.
But as in most retirements, there is always someone or something waiting in the wings to take over. In the blimp’s case, Goodyear is finalizing construction of a new Goodyear zeppelin — an all-new airship that, as of yet, does not have a name — at the company’s Wingfoot Lake Hangar in Suffield, Ohio.
The new blimp is equipped with advanced technology for Goodyear and its aerial coverage.
“The biggest difference is this airship has a semi-rigid structure,” Mr. Grassian said.
Thus, the structure has a bit of a skeleton on the inside, which the current Goodyear blimps do not have.
“It’s all fly-by-wire,” he said, noting, “It’s similar to what a helicopter might fly.
“The engines are vectored and the landings and takeoffs will happen much like a helicopter does.”
It is a completely different feel for the pilot and crew who now must train on how to operate the new airship.
Once it’s launched, Goodyear will once again have three airships flying, with “Spirit of America” in Carson, Calif. and “Spirit of Innovation” based in Pompano Beach, Fla.
“Goodyear’s been doing this for almost 60 years now and the filming that we provide for the networks is almost always superior,” Mr. Grassian said.
Goodyear’s “reputation really helps us,” he said, because networks know they can rely on the Akron-based tire manufacturer and “they know it’s going to be a quality show.”
Goodyear blimps have been flying since 1925 and started sports aerial broadcasting nearly 60 years ago.
Mickey Wittman, known as the “father of sports aerial broadcasting” for his work in developing the Goodyear blimp’s role in sports television, was recently inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
His resume includes more than 2,500 live events; 30 World Series; 24 Super Bowls; five Olympics; 17 Orange Bowls; more than 200 PGA events; 22 years of Monday Night Football games; 26 All-Star Games; eight Cotton Bowls; seven Rose Bowls; 28 Indianapolis 500s; 18 years of horse racing’s Triple Crown events; 13 U.S. Open tennis tournaments; 20 heavyweight boxing championships; 300 college football games; 12 NCAA men’s Final Four basketball tournaments; 240 NASCAR races; and hundreds of other sporting events and sports-related entertainment shows in North America and Europe.
The blimps are very much involved in big sporting events as well as other popular, large events around the country that use aerial coverage, Mr. Grassian said.
And Mr. Wittman’s legacy continues as Goodyear covered more than 200 live events with its airships last year, including all five college BCS Bowls and the National Championship.
Goodyear’s partnerships with the networks are long standing, with the tire manufacturer sometimes reaching out and sometimes the networks seeking out Goodyear.
“We’re always mindful of the sports schedules,” Mr. Grassian added.
Once the Goodyear blimp is booked, he said the “networks really covet” Goodyear’s aerial shots, so they are willing to give the company what is essentially an on-air advertisement in exchange for those aerial shots.
Mr. Grassian said the tire maker provides “the aerial coverage and for that they provide us a run of a blimp graphic once every hour that we are overhead and, in addition to that blimp graphic, the announcer reads a voiceover that supports Goodyear tires.”
In the blimp, there is at least one pilot for an event. Mr. Grassian said, but since flying the blimp is physically taxing, sometimes for longer events there are two pilots on board. Also on the ship there is a cameraman who gets audio guidance from a director on the ground who also directs all the camera persons.
“So when the director wants a specific shot, he’s able to talk directly to our cameraman who’s able to deliver that shot in real time,” Mr. Grassian said.
The camera person on board is a Goodyear employee, but the director works for the TV network. For one sporting event, there can be 30 cameras filming; the director is in charge of all them along with the blimp’s aerial footage.
“We hear all the time from people in the industry and outside the industry that if it’s a big sporting event, you can bet that the Goodyear blimp’s going to be overhead,” Mr. Grassian said.
Those blimps have been an ever-present symbol in the skies for sporting events — and even an occasional news event — for years and garner recognition in their own right. The recently retired “Spirit of Goodyear” will, according to Goodyear, be decommissioned with a very special retirement gift: a Guinness World Records achievement for the “Longest Continuous Operating Airship.”
Meanwhile, the new airship will get its chance to fly in the near future, debuting in the spring for test flights so the crew has time to get acclimated to it. Goodyear said it’s aiming for the blimp to be covering events in the mid-to-late summer.
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