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Out with old, in with new: Goodyear to unveil blimp

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The "Spirit of Goodyear" has been retired, soon to be replaced by a new airship.

AKRON—At the tender age of 14, the “Spirit of Goodyear” airship has been retired.

The venerable blimp provided aerial coverage during the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 23 to mark its final trip.

“It's reached the end of its life cycle. So, like most people, it went down South to enjoy its retirement,” said Doug Grassian, a representative from Goodyear.

The airship was Goodyear's longest, continuously-operated airship. It went out on a high note: it made a rare appearance with another Goodyear airship at the Daytona 500.

Since its launch on March 15, 2000, the “Spirit of Goodyear” has covered NASCAR races, as well as some of America's biggest events, Goodyear said, including the NFL playoffs, Major League Baseball All-Star games, NBA finals, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, U.S. Opens and NCAA football games.

In with the new

But as what happens with a retirement, a replacement is waiting in the wings.

Goodyear is finalizing construction a new Goodyear zeppelin, an all-new airship at the company's Wingfoot Lake Hangar in Suffield, Ohio.

The new blimp is equipped with advanced technology for Goodyear and its aerial coverage. “The biggest difference is this airship has a semi-rigid structure,” Grassian said.

Thus, the structure has a bit of a skeleton on the inside, unlike other Goodyear blimps. “It's all fly by wire. It's similar to what a helicopter might fly,” Grassian said. “The engines are vectored, and the landings and takeoffs will happen much like a helicopter does.”

It is a completely different feel for the pilot and crew. They will train on how to operate the airship.

Once in flight, Goodyear again will have three airships available, with “Spirit of America” in Carson, Calif., and “Spirit of Innovation” in Pompano Beach, Fla.

“Goodyear's been doing this for almost 60 years now, and the filming that we provide for the networks is almost always superior,” Grassian said.

He said Goodyear's “reputation really helps us” because networks know they can rely on the Akron-based tire manufacturer because they know it's going to be a quality show.

Goodyear blimps have been flying since 1925. Mickey Wittman, known as the father of sports aerial broadcasting for his work in developing the Goodyear blimp's role in sports television, recently was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

His resume includes broadcasting more than 2,500 live events, 30 World Series, 24 Super Bowls, five Olympics, 17 Orange Bowls, more than 200 PGA events, 22 years of Monday Night Football, 26 Major League Baseball All-Star games, eight Cotton Bowls, seven Rose Bowls, 28 Indianapolis 500s, 18 years of horse racing's Triple Crown events, 13 U.S. Open tennis tournaments, 20 heavyweight boxing championships, 300 college football games, 12 NCAA men's Final Four tournaments, 240 NASCAR races and hundreds of other sporting events and sports-related entertainment shows in North America and Europe.

The blimps are very much involved in the big sporting events and other large events around the country that use aerial coverage, Grassian said.

Long legacy

Wittman's legacy continues as Goodyear covered more than 200 live events with its airships last year, including all four college BCS bowl games and the BCS National Championship.

Goodyear's partnerships with the networks are long-standing. Sometimes the tire manufacturer will reach out, and other times the networks will seek Goodyear out.

“We're always mindful of the sports schedules,” Grassian added.

Once the Goodyear blimp is booked, he said the “networks really covet” Good-year's aerial coverage, so they are willing to give the tire maker what is essentially an on-air advertisement in exchange for those aerial shots.

“We provide the aerial coverage, and for that they provide us a run of a blimp graphic once every hour that we are overhead, and in addition to that blimp graphic, the announcer reads a voice-over that supports Goodyear tires,” Grassian said.

At least one pilot works every event. He said flying the blimp is physically taxing, so often for longer events, two pilots are on board.

A cameraman also rides in the ship and receives direct audio from the director on the ground.

“So when the director wants a specific shot, he's able to talk directly to our cameraman, who's able to deliver that shot in real time,” Grassian said.

The cameraperson on board is a Goodyear employee, but the director is with the network.

For one sporting event, there can be 30 cameras filming, and the director is in charge of all those cameras. Aerial footage from the blimp is just a part of that.

“We hear all the time from people in the industry and outside the industry that if it's a big sporting event, you can bet that the Goodyear blimp's going to be overhead,” Grassian said.

Goodyear blimps have been symbols in the sky for sports for years and have received recognition in their own right.

The recently-retired “Spirit of Goodyear” will be decommissioned with a special retirement gift, Goodyear said: it will receive a Guinness World Book of Records achievement as the Longest Continuous Operating Airship.

The new airship will get its chance to fly soon. It will debut in the spring, making a test flight in order for the crew to adjust to it.

Goodyear aims for it to be covering events in mid-to-late summer.