By Robert Nolin, Sun Sentinel
Lucky observers who cast eyes skyward Tuesday afternoon caught a rare sight: two massive Goodyear blimps performing maneuvers over South Florida’s coastline.
The pudgy airships dipped, floated over each other, crossed shadows and executed turns — at a breakneck speed of roughly 10 mph.
One wag at the Boca Raton Airport tower, spotting the aerial ballet, inquired over a crackly radio: “Is that how you guys make baby blimps?”
Expect more such airborne antics in the skies overhead. For the next several months, Pompano Beach Airpark, already the longtime home of the Spirit of Innovation blimp, will host the Spirit of Goodyear blimp, which arrived Monday from its base in Akron, Ohio.
The Spirit of Goodyear is retiring and will be dismantled next year. It left home to make way for construction of a new, technologically superior blimp, called the Goodyear NT (for “new technology”). In coming years, all three of the tire company’s blimps — based in Pompano Beach, Akron and Carson, Calif. — will be replaced by the NT models.
But until it’s disassembled, and its helium recycled, the Spirit of Goodyear will roam the local heavens, patrolling sports stadiums and broadcasting ads through 82,000 LED lights along its left side. “It’s not done working yet,” said Eddie Ogden, a Goodyear spokesman.
Tuesday, the blimp was being used for pilot training. The Spirit of Innovation tagged along to form an impromptu tandem air show.
“I bet everyone on the ground is loving this, seeing two blimps in the air at once,” said Matt Lussier, piloting the Spirit of Innovation. “To be flying with another blimp, it’s just fun. I’m elated.”
Pompano Beach is the only base to host two Goodyear blimps, which tickled city officials. “It’s like having Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt visiting your neighborhood,” city spokeswoman Sandra King said.
South Florida is spared the kind of weather that can ground a blimp all winter, but offers its own meteorological challenges. They can fly in rain, but a thunderstorm is a menace. “It can suck the airship up into the cloud,” said pilot Derek Reid.
The lighter-than-air ships, which weigh only 800 pounds and boast 21,000 square feet of surface area, soar at the whim of the winds. Pilots must respond accordingly.
“It’s what we call seat-of-your-pants flying: you have to feel things before they happen,” said Reid, a four-year veteran blimp wrangler. “If we get a wind shift we have to adjust immediately. It’s kind of what we consider dancing with the wind.”
What isn’t a hazard is the helium that fills the ship to make it float. Unlike hydrogen, which caught fire and caused the Hindenburg crash, helium won’t burn — even if you held a blowtorch to it. “It would put that blowtorch out,” Reid said.
With crew members holding down its gondola, or clutching lines dangling from its nose, the blimp looks almost comically old-fashioned at takeoff. But then it slips its tethers and swiftly floats upward at a dizzying 30-degree angle.
“Like a homesick angel, she just goes up,” Lussier said. “Every person is either scared or delighted about it, but no one comes away without a smile on their face.”
At a stately pace, through open windows at about 1,000 feet, South Florida unfolds below, a mosaic of rooftops, playing fields, golf courses and canals bounded by green-blue sea. Beach, pools and condo balconies are empty; everyone appears to be on Interstate 95.
“Life passes you by when you’re in a plane,” said Lussier. “We’re low and slow, we get to take it all in.”
People wave, the pilot said, and dogs bark. “We do drive dogs nuts, because we’re really large and pretty loud,” he said.
The occasional thermal current — rising heat from roof and parking lot — buffet and wobble the gondola. A rainstorm lurks in the distance. Beachside highrises are a faded silhouette.
“I’d rather be up here than on the ground any day,” Lussier said. “I love my office.”
Goodyear donates blimp rides to various local charities, which then auctions them off. Some $250,000 were channeled to South Florida charities last year by the Spirit of Innovation.
Company spokesman Ogden said those who crave a blimp ride need to watch the newspaper or heed announcements about upcoming charity auctions. Donating to others is the only way you’ll get to ride that homesick angel.