October 6, 2010 by wcobserver
By Susan McCarthy
County- Drivers traveling down Hwy 71 last week took a double-take when their peripheral vision sited “The Spirit of Goodyear” blimp tethered at Drake Field.
The blimp, which was in town to deliver aerial shots of the Arkansas-Alabama football game on Saturday, spent much of the week grounded due to high winds and then rain, but finally left its mast Friday afternoon in time for Greenland’s homecoming festivities.
There are actually three Goodyear Blimps; the one in town last week traveled from its home base in Akron Ohio, supported with a crew of about 20 and a truck that is a mechanic’s shop on wheels, two vans and a bus. The blimp or ship as it is called, holds up to six passengers and circled continuously over Razorback stadium during the game, Saturday, with just two pilots and a specially trained aeronautics camera technician.
At 192 feet long, 50 feet wide and nearly 60 feet tall, “The Spirit of Goodyear” is essentially a huge helium balloon with a small cockpit and two 10 horsepower engines.
“It’s a seat-of-the pants flying. Every take-off and landing is different,” said Rob Delagrange, one of three pilots that traveled to Northwest Arkansas.
And he’s not kidding. A look inside the cockpit quickly shows these guys have to fly with a lot more heart than technology. The ship is steered left or right with just two foot pedals and its height is controlled with a wheel on the right side of the pilot’s chair that resembles one side of a wheel chair. There are also air bags and valves that control air flow and the amount of helium. But there is no such thing as “auto pilot,” here, although it does have GPS.
“The take-offs and landings are the biggies. It took me over a year to get my license,” said Delagrange, who was a helicopter pilot for the Air National Guard for 20 years. “Anyone can fly it straight.”
Wind, rain, snow, freezing rain and even dew and day-time heating can keep a pilot and his ground crew on their toes.
“It can fly through rain if it has to, but it adds a bunch of weight to it,” said Delagrange. He said the weight of freezing rain can literally “bring the ship to the ground.”
The “Spirit of Goodyear” can fly as high as 10,000 feet, but Delagrange said they usually stay at about 1000 feet from the ground so those below can easily read the 12-foot Goodyear letters. The 80,000 lights message board is only on one side of the blimp because otherwise it would be too heavy, according to Delagrange who said the blimp only weighs about 50 pounds when it’s full of helium.
His favorite flight ever? “Flying over Manhattan at night was sweet…flying eye-level with the Statue of Liberty,” Delagrange said. Perhaps he feels differently now that he’s been to a Razorback game.