Up in the air over the ride of a lifetime

The Spirit of Goodyear provided a smooth, 30-mile-an-hour cruise over downtown Akron. It's one of the company's four airships that soon will be replaced by bigger, faster versions.
The Spirit of Goodyear provided a smooth, 30-mile-an-hour cruise over downtown Akron. It's one of the company's four airships that soon will be replaced by bigger, faster versions. (KRISTEN GRAHAM / Staff)

Mom, a giver, was thrilled to take her dream journey on a Goodyear blimp.

Posted: August 22, 2012

AKRON, Ohio - I made my mother's lifelong dream come true on an overcast Tuesday morning.

"Oh. My. Goodness," my mom said, her eyes shining as she peered down on the houses, roads, and farm fields below us. "This is so exciting."

Other people yearn for big things like sparkly jewelry, grand houses, massive fortunes.

But my mother - Jean Metzger Graham - has always had another fascination.

Blimps.

Yes, blimps.

Mom has lived her entire life in Northeast Philadelphia, and is the sort of person who rarely asks for anything for herself. She has never traveled to Europe or owned a fancy car. She's a preschool teacher who has built her life around taking care of other people.

But ever since she was a child, she has always dreamed of riding in a blimp.

On a whim, I e-mailed the folks at Goodyear, telling them of her wish. It turns out the company gives away hundreds of rides a year to the public, either through charity or other special circumstances.

Goodyear was game - if we made our way to Akron, where the company is headquartered. And when I mentioned that my aunt Kathleen Donnelly also had a "blimp journey" on her bucket list, they invited her, too.

Mom screamed when I told her about our trip. Aunt Kathleen had tears in her eyes. Even through the dull slog of a seven-hour trip west across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and into Ohio, the car was filled with kid-at-Christmas excitement,

The morning of our ride dawned overcast, with rain on the radar. We worried, because blimps don't fly in bad weather.

We drove to the company's Wingfoot Lake airship base, set in a pretty, pastoral patch of the world. After a short ride in a company van, there it was in front of us - the 192-foot Spirit of Goodyear. All we could do was marvel.

A 20-person team was on the ground, readying our ride - mechanics, technicians, ground crew members, a pilot. Finally, it was time to go. We walked one by one up a small stepladder into the gondola, or passenger cabin, affixed to the bottom of the envelope, the part of the blimp that contains the helium gas.

Once Mom, Aunt Kathleen, and I were seated - no seat belts, just headsets to hear one another over the din inside the blimp - the crew adjusted the blimp's weight to ours, removing some of the ballast, 25-pound bags filled with stainless steel pellets.

Pilot Jerry Hissem, a 15-year Goodyear veteran, used two rudder pedals (to steer left and right) and a massive wooden elevator wheel (to pitch us up or down) to gain altitude. As we climbed to 1,000 feet, the drop in atmospheric pressure caused the helium to expand, and Hissem released air through valves on the bottom of the blimp.

Our ride was lovely - placid and relaxing, a 30-mile-per-hour cruise around downtown Akron.

Hissem kept a close eye on the weather radar fixed on his control panel, but the weather actually worked in our favor, he told us.

"Overcast skies make for a smooth ride," said Hissem, who's trained as both a commercial pilot and an aircraft mechanic. He and the rest of the crew are typically on the road 70 to 100 days a year, traveling to events all over the country.

Because we were flying so low and slow, I saw things I would have missed had I been in a plane or helicopter - a child jumping into a swimming pool, a structure with "Hi Blimp!" painted on its roof. We saw a car making its way around the Goodyear test track, the University of Akron's campus, Derby Downs, where the All-American Soap Box Derby happens annually.

Hissem opened a window. We switched seats to gain different vantage points.

Mom and Aunt Kathleen were in their glory.

"It's so peaceful," Mom said.

"Magnificent," Aunt Kathleen added.

After about 45 minutes, it was time to return to the ground, and Hissem steered us into a perfect landing as our crew waited. Flying the blimp can be hard, physical work - there's no hydraulic assist, and a pilot might need to half stand to execute a maneuver on a particularly turbulent day. We lucked out with good flying conditions, though.

After we landed, we peeked inside the massive hangar where the blimp is housed when it's not aloft. (The space is so big two blimps can fit nose to nose inside.) It's the place where the blimp is maintained, where the tractor trailer and bus that the crew uses for travel are kept.

Goodyear has been flying blimps since 1925, and the Spirit of Goodyear is part of the company's current fleet of four airships, including one based in California, one in Florida, and one in China.

We were lucky to catch a ride on the Spirit of Goodyear - its days are numbered. The company will soon begin replacing its current fleet of U.S. blimps with bigger, faster zeppelins for a total price of about $60 million.

Parts for the new blimps will soon arrive from Germany - the airships are being built in conjunction with a German company. The Spirit of Goodyear's replacement should be completed in 2014.

After our long trip home, I had only one question for Mom.

Did the ride match the expectations she had built up after a lifetime of blimp dreams?

"It was just amazing," Mom said. "Beyond my dreams."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag.

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