Me and the Blimp

Floating, Roaring, and Looking for a Seatbelt Above 1979 Los Angeles

March 23, 1979—The Downey Southeast News/Huntington Park Daily Signal

Story and Photos By Bill Newcott, Staff Writer

Launching nose-first from its Carson base, the Goodyear blimp Columbia roars skyward.

They say it’s the most recognizable corporate symbol in the world. And, unlike most public relations hype, it’s probably true. 

Goodyear’s blimps have flown above every state on the continent. They have appeared on television screens around the world, and have caused fans at major sporting events to turn their attention way from the games since 1925. 

Can there be any better way to get someone’s attention than to point frantically upward and yell, “Look! It’s the Goodyear blimp!” Probably not, even here in Southern California, where one of the company’s three blimps lives.

The Californian Goodyear Airship Operations base is strategically located adjacent to a golf course near the intersection of the San Diego and Harbor Freeways. During the six months of the year the blimp is around, traffic slows down just long enough for motorists to watch the blimp take off and land.

As I sit at the airship base station, waiting for the next blimp to leave, I can’t help but notice how alarmingly similar this is to waiting for a bus. The “station” has a few benches, a water fountain, and lots of men in uniforms running around. Ahead lies the vast expanse of the blimp landing field, green and well-cropped, and a narrow paved path leads to a landing pad in the middle.

The blimp, though, is nowhere to be seen. It’s off flying around someplace, probably causing a traffic accident along the freeway as some out-of-towner cranes his neck to get a better look. Meanwhile, Gary Brown, a Goodyear public relations man, is expounding to me just how good an investment the blimp fleet is for the company. 

(continued below)

The blimp rests briefly at its launching pad with the ground crew nearby.

“There’s no way to measure how many people look up at it,” Brown says. “And, of course, the name of the game around here is to keep the name of the company in front of the public.”

Brown says it costs about $1 million a year to keep each of the blimps flying, but that is considered a worthy portion of Goodyear’s annual advertising budget.

“If we didn’t have the blimps,” he says, “we’d just put it under the heading of television, or billboards, or something like that.”

During television commercials, however, people often chat or go to the kitchen for something to eat. You don’t walk away from a blimp.

“Last summer we went to Flint, Michigan,” Brown says. “The entire town showed up when we arrived, for most of the days we were there, there were 4,000 people hanging around.”

Although they are still known to run out of their houses when they hear it overhead (at least, that’s what happens at my house), Southern Californians are used to seeing the blimp, which has been here since the 1930s. In fact, a short drive down Florence Avenue to the old Los Angeles Goodyear plant will reveal a decommissioned blimp hangar, still freshly painted, at the southwest corner of the complex. The hangar is not used anymore, since Goodyear’s blimps are now too large to fit in it. 

“We’re thinking of building a hangar out here,” Brown says.

But blimps are weatherproof, so they seldom need to go indoors. Once a year, the California blimp, named the Columbia, goes in for service at a massive dirigible hangar the U.S. Army still maintains near Carson 

Big as the blimp looks, it is small potatoes compared to the dirigibles built during the golden age of the airship. Still, I tell Brown, even at just 192 feet long, Goodyear’s blimp is every bit as iconic as photos of the Hindenberg exploding into flames over New Jersey in 1937.

Brown winces. It must have been something I said.

The fact is, such an accident is impossible for the helium-filled Goodyear blimps. The worst that can happen, short of a mid-air collision, would be a leak causing the blimp to steadily lose altitude and finally settle in somebody’s yard.

In the distance, a droning sound arises. The Goodyear ground crew is springing into action. The men run to the middle of the field and wait. The blimp is coming in for a landing.

While the responsibility for placing the ship on the landing pad belongs to the pilot, the actual hard work of muscling the blimp to the ground goes to the ground crew. Long ropes hang from the blimp, and the crew members must grab them as the blimp comes in.

Once the ropes are safely in hand, the crew works in unison to haul the blimp down. They pull frantically, resembling balloon holders at a very windy Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The passengers in the blimp are rapidly discharged, and the new passengers are hurriedly loaded aboard. The hatch is shut, and the ground crew drops the ropes. 

Now, most people might think a blimp take-off would be a rather soothing affair, with the airship gently floating upward to an appropriate altitude, then being gently pushed forward by the twin engines mounted on the gondola. But no, the take-off of the Goodyear blimp is more like a rocket launch. Abruptly, the ship’s nose points skyward at better than a 45-degree angle. The pilot bites his lip, then throws the engines on full throttle. The G-force tosses all six passengers backwards into their seats. A frantic search for a seat belt proves fruitless because, I discover, blimps don’t have seatbelts. 

Neither is the flight silent. In fact, it’s not even reasonably quiet. The grinding of the engines is deafening, with the rate of speed comparing badly to the apparent amount of energy expended. 

In fact, the blimp in flight closely resembles the banging, rattling spaceships in those old Flash Gordon movie serials, heaving noisily as the hero takes off across the galaxy in pursuit of Ming the Merciless. 

After the initial shock of take-off, the blimp levels off. The entire Los Angeles basin comes into view. Oohs and aahs fill the cabin. Our pilot, Joel Chamberlain, chuckles to himself. For nine years he has been riding the Goodyear blimps, and he seems to take some joy in his passengers’ reactions.

With the other American blimps stationed in Miami and Houston, and a third in Europe, Chamberlain’s blimp is certainly the most visible airship of all. Does that bother him?

“Well, sure, I think of all the people who look up at it,” he says. “They say it’s the most photographed aircraft in the world. Of course, that’s why we’re up here.”

“Up here” is now about 1,500 feet as we head west toward Redondo Beach. 

The blimp’s actual maximum altitude is a staggering 10,000 feet. “But, gee,” Chamberlain says, “nobody would be able to see the sign from that distance.”

The gondola of the blimp is incredibly tiny, seating only six people besides the pilot. There’s plenty of conventional-looking aeronautical equipment, but there is also an array of cables, wheels, and levers to be yanked, spun, and pulled by the pilot during a flight. For a moment Chamberlain reminds me of Vincent Price in Master of the World, as the movie villain who conquers Earth from the helm of his killer blimp.

Chamberlain, along with his fellow pilots, has attended untold hundreds of sporting and entertainment events. Besides serving as airborne camera platforms for television networks, the blimps are often called upon to simply fly around during special occasions. Until a few years ago, the Goodyear blimp made an annual cruise above Huntington Park’s Christmas Lane Parade. 

It was Chamberlain’s blimp that nearly wiped out a Super Bowl during the movie Black Sunday. No need to worry, though: the Los Angeles Colosseum is miles away, and Chamberlain does not even faintly resemble Bruce Dern.

(continued below)

Two of the blimp’s six passengers look for their home from a window of the blimp.

In the five seats behind us, the other passengers are gazing agog out the half-open windows, pointing at the freeways as they stretch to the horizon, looking for their houses. The mountains are visible to the north, rising above the mist, and Rancho Palos Verdes sits like a lump to the south. 

“This is a job that’s easy to take for granted,” Chamberlain says. “People climb on here and they get all excited, or they even get excited while they are still on the ground, waiting. And I wonder what they’re all excited about.”

The ocean is just about below now. Chamberlain turns the blimp around and heads for home.

“This is a good way to buy a house,” he says. “You get to see the neighborhoods. You see where people are doing work on their homes, or where improvements are being done.”

A few minutes later, the airship operations base comes into view. Chamberlain guides the blimp in a large, lazy circle, over the golf course. A couple of duffers wave to the blimp. Chamberlain waves back.

A moment later, the ground crew is rushing toward the blimp. They grab the lines and tow us in.

“Oh, here,” Chamberlain says, handing me a small card. “We give these out as souvenirs.”

It’s a Goodyear Blimp Club membership card. 

During the drive back home, along the San Diego Freeway, the blimp floats overhead.

I think I see Chamberlain waving. 

Off on another voyage.

Published by Bill Newcott

Award-Winning Film Critic, Columnist, TV Host and Creator of AARP's Movies For Grownups, Bill writes for publications including National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, Delaware Beach Life, Alaska Beyond and Northwest Travel.

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