July 18, 2013 -- In Akron--not in London--a blessed event is about to occur. Will it be as big as the royal baby? Bigger. Much bigger.
The newborn measures 246 feet long by 66 feet wide. It weighs 19,780 pounds. It is a Zeppelin—Goodyear's first after decades of operating blimps.
The tire company says the christening will occur sometime early next year.
For proud parent Goodyear, having a Zeppelin marks something of a departure. Since 1919, its offspring have almost all been blimps. For generations the iconic aircraft have been a fixture over sporting events and other public occasions. But the time has come, says Nancy Ray, head of Goodyear's airship operations, to give the blimp the boot.
"Our current blimps are becoming obsolete," she tells ABC News. Their technology dates back to WWII and earlier. "It was time for us to move to the next generation."
By that she means the Zeppelin. These craft, made in Germany, have advantages blimps lack. They have, for instance, a rigid internal structure. (Blimps are just limp bags, whose shape is maintained by internal pressure.) The Zeppelin has three pivoting propellers (one on each side and another in the tail) that make it more maneuverable. And being more maneuverable, it requires fewer people to handle it when on the ground.
They are not, however, cheap.
Goodyear is buying three from Germany, at $21 million a pop. The first one, sent to the U.S. in parts, is being assembled right now in a Goodyear hangar outside of Akron. Ray expects assembly to be completed by winter, with a first flight in March.
Experts say the cost of Goodyear's existing blimps is a small fraction of $21 million each. But Ray points out that Goodyear is getting more than just the Zeppelin: It is getting pilot training, spare parts, technical information—all the intellectual property necessary for Goodyear to operate independently of the German supplier, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of Friedrichshafen.
Thomas Brandt, CEO of ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, says he's happy his company and Goodyear have come together again--referring to a partnership the two enjoyed prior to WWII. It was a Goodyear-Zeppelin joint venture that built two "flying aircraft carriers" for the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, giant rigid airships that carried five fighter planes each, which they could launch and retrieve in mid-air.
Ray says that cutting the umbilical cord to blimps has not been easy emotionally. "These old airships," she says, "are so charming in their special way." The good news, however, is that the three now flying will all go to good homes—to museums, which she says she cannot, for now, name.
Though the company's new Zeppelins will not be blimps, Goodyear will continue to refer to them as such. How come? Goodyear has invested decades of promotion in the Goodyear Blimp name, flying over countless sporting events.
"It's not technically a blimp," she admits. "But most people don't know or care. To them, it's the Goodyear Blimp, and we're fine with that."