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Column: A look at blimps through the years

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Photo by RPN photo by Jennifer Karpus The new Goodyear blimp.

I was researching blimp disasters and came across an interesting one of which I'd never heard. You might be wondering what is wrong with me to be studying blimp disasters. It happened in the usual manner: reading about Goodyear's newest blimp, I opened another tab to review the difference between a dirigible and a blimp (answer: rigid frame, a dirigible; non-rigid, a blimp). The next thing you know, I've been clicking on links for 45 minutes—the domino effect of using the web.

There have been plenty of disasters involving such airships, most in the earlier days. The Hindenberg, of course, is the most noted event, largely because of the amazing radio coverage—”Oh, the humanity”—and the graphic newsreel film. The vast majority of airship accidents occurred between 1910 and 1947, with many happening during World War II.

My tenure as a blimp watcher began when I moved to Akron in 1979 and learned that distinctive sound was a blimp sneaking up on me. There have been few blimp accidents since then, since the airships, navigation and weather forecasting are far advanced from the early days.

I knew about the tragedies of the Akron in 1933 (73 died when it crashed at sea off New Jersey) and its sister ship the Macon (two dead when it went down in the Pacific off Monterey, Calif.). The demise of the Wingfoot Air Express over Chicago on July 1, 1919, was new to me.

The Wingfoot Air Express was flying from White City Amusement Park—where the famous Chicago's World's Fair had occurred—over the Loop. Blimps were a new attraction, and cars pulled off the roads, people came out of buildings, fans and ballplayers at Comiskey Park looked up to the sky to see the 158-ft. long, 34-ft. wide behemoth sail by.

They all had first-class seats to the tragedy. Flying at 1,200 feet, the airship—held aloft by 10,000 cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen—began to burn. The pilot, two mechanics, a passenger and photographer all donned parachutes and bailed out, and all their chutes caught fire. The pilot, who landed on top of a building, and a mechanic survived. They are presumed to be the first people to save their lives by jumping from an aircraft while wearing a parachute.

The flaming blimp crashed on the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, causing 10 more deaths.

Ninety-five years later, blimps are much safer. For one thing, they are filled with helium, which doesn't burn. Goodyear's newest blimp is billed as being larger, faster and more maneuverable than its predecessors. It's huge—256 feet long—and has a semi-rigid internal structure, a departure from other Goodyear blimps.

Goodyear held a naming contest, with lots of nice prizes for the winner and runners-up. My guess is Wingfoot Express II won't be the selected.

Noga is a contributing editor to RPN and its former editor. He can be reached at