Everyone, it seems, loves the Goodyear blimp. Including me. I ignore, even resent, the imitators. I've read reams about Goodyear's airships in various publications. And when the tire company recently received an avalanche of publicity about launching a new blimp to replace one that crashed in October, I read every word I could find in print about the event.
To my surprise, a fact well worth reporting was not mentioned in any of the articles.
Even Wheels of Fortune, the well-documented history of rubber in Akron published by the Akron Beacon Journal, which devoted quite a few pages to the airships, failed to mention that 42 years ago Goodyear came within an eyelash of scuttling its lighter-than-air program.
According to The Goodyear Story, a history of Goodyear written by Maurice O'Reilly, Goodyear's leaders in 1958 were planning to take the company's one remaining blimp, the Miami-based Mayflower, out of service because it was a drain on profits.
They were, that is, until a newly hired public relations executive put his job on the line and convinced them to reconsider. In doing so, he saved the blimp from extinction.
He was Robert H. "Bob" Lane, who had been hired away from Carl Byoir & Associates, then the world's largest public relations agency. Mr. Lane was appalled at Goodyear management's apparent inability to envision the public relations potential of the blimp.
Although he had yet to earn the confidence of Goodyear's top executives, he pleaded with them to keep the Mayflower in service one more year to give him time to demonstrate its capacity to build goodwill for the company.
Again and again he hammered out a salient fact that was true at the time: "Nobody else has a blimp. It's like having the only ad in Life magazine, the only sign in Times Square or the only billboard on the Los Angeles freeway."
Finally, seeing the logic in his argument, management relented, but only after he accepted full responsibility for programming the Mayflower's operations over the next 12 months.
Mr. Lane moved swiftly. Assigning a public relations professional to the airship for the first time, he dispatched it on a six-month tour of the Eastern Seaboard—the first blimp tour based solely on a public relations perspective.
The tour was a smashing success. Today, Goodyear has seven blimps—three in the U.S., two in Europe, and one each in Australia and South America. They help televise all kinds of outdoor events—and bring the Goodyear name into homes around the world.
But his blimp contributions didn't stop there. He also played a role in seeing to it that the airships could be used effectively at night.
Having seen spectacular use of an illuminated sign in Belgium in 1960, he asked Goodyear engineers to develop something similar: a computer-operated, full-color animated sign that could be carried on each side of a blimp.
The engineers did, and by 1966 it was installed on the Mayflower and later on other blimps. Called the Skytacular, the sign has been enthralling spectators and TV viewers watching night sporting events ever since.
Through its many roles in the skies around the world—including as a platform for TV aerial cameras, as a public service vehicle for charities, and even as a goodwill ambassador for Goodyear—the blimp has become a symbol for good in 21st Century society.
But few people—including Goodyear employees—are aware that if it hadn't been for Robert H. Lane and his vision, the Goodyear airship program might not exist today. He went on to build a public relations program at Goodyear that many considered one of the best in the nation. He retired in 1979, and lives a quiet life with his family in Naples, Fla.
Mr. Zielasko is the former editor and publisher of Tire Business.