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Capital Region Scrapbook: Goodyear’s newest blimp creates a stir in ’63 visit

Monday, June 4, 2012
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Gazette reporter Tommy Kahan prepares to board the six-passenger gondola of Goodyear’s new blimp. The $750,000 flying ambassador had been christened three days earlier.
Gazette reporter Tommy Kahan prepares to board the six-passenger gondola of Goodyear’s new blimp. The $750,000 flying ambassador had been christened three days earlier.

Some people always became excited when Goodyear’s most famous representative was in town.

“It’s the blimp!” kids would say, as the giant balloon floated over backyards and side streets. Mothers and fathers would run for movie cameras, hoping to secure scenes of the dynamic dirigible.

In 1963, Goodyear’s Columbia made appearances over the Capital Region. The silver airship touched down at Albany County Airport in Colonie on Wednesday, Aug. 21. It was one of the first visits anywhere for Columbia, which had been christened just three days earlier.

Evolving technology

Goodyear had been into aviation since 1925. The company, based in Akron, Ohio, built two rigid airships for the Navy during the 1930s. The rigid design, according to the company, employed an aluminum alloy frame. And they were huge — Goodyear said their U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon were both longer than two football fields. The ships weighed more than 400,000 pounds each.

Non-rigid design eventually became the rule for dirigibles. Internal pressure of the lifting gas, non-flammable helium, maintained the shape of the envelope, or the airship’s polyester fabric skin. The only solid parts were the passenger car and the tail fins; there was no internal framework.

Goodyear has a little more trouble explaining the name “blimp.” The company says experts trace the word to Great Britain’s Royal Navy Air Service. The story says that the lieutenant in charge of an air station in Chapel, England, during World War I conducted a weekly inspection at his base. He flipped his thumb at the envelope of one of the airships in service and noticed the odd noise that echoed off the stretched fabric. “Blimp!” he said, imitating the sound.

When the $750,000, 157-foot Columbia checked into Colonie on Aug. 21, Schenectady Gazette reporter Tommy Kahan checked onto the passenger list.

“Columbia is the 18th commercial blimp built by Goodyear,” Kahan reported. “Prior to the Columbia’s construction, the last commercial ship built by Goodyear was the Mayflower, commissioned in 1959. However, the Mayflower was wrecked by 85-mile-an-hour winds in Michigan last year and is now being completely renovated in Akron.”

Columbia made its moves with two 175-horsepower engines and could cruise between 35 and 45 miles an hour. Pilots generally stayed between 1,000 and 3,000 feet off the ground. Their ceiling was 10,000 feet.

Kahan traveled with pilot Roy Belotti of Oxnard, Calif., a retired lieutenant commander with the U.S. Navy. Gazette photographer Sid Brown was also aboard. Columbia drifted over local neighborhoods on Aug. 21 and Thursday, Aug. 22.The airship set a course for Groton, Conn., on Friday.

Movie role

People can still see the big silver today, if they’re ever watching the 1977 movie drama “Black Sunday.” Both Columbia and Mayflower are in the film, in which terrorists plan to use a Goodyear blimp to murder thousands at the 1976 Super Bowl at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Good guy Robert Shaw, who had wrestled a shark in another famous 1970s film, got the chance to wrestle a rogue blimp this time.

Columbia has been retired from both cinematic and aeronautic purposes. Today, Goodyear operates three airships in the United States — the Spirit of America in Carson, Calif.; the Spirit of Goodyear in Akron; and the Spirit of Innovation in Pompano Beach, Fla.

 
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