Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chapter 19: Riding the Friendly Giant

The blimp takeoff is impossibly steep by aircraft standards. Full power on the engines, and with the elevator wheel wound full back, the Goodyear blimp climbs noisily out of its Carson base in Southern California.

It was a sparkling winter’s day and Goodyear Blimp Columbia rode serenely at the mooring mast. Here at the Carson Goodyear Base in southern California I was about to be initiated into the world of lighter-than-air flight. Columbia was alone and as a fitful wind changed direction, the airship quietly turned, always pointing into wind, trundling on her single castoring wheel around a circular path on the concrete ramp. Heavy shot bags attached to the blue and white passenger gondola kept her helium-filled bulk in equilibrium, and every few minutes the sporadic hum of an electric fan drifted across the field. This fan was automatically topping up the air pressure in the internal ballonets deep within the airship.

A smart blue and white van drove out to the airship apparently grazing at the mast. An overalled mechanic emerged and went about his tasks preparing the beast for flight. Both engines were topped up with oil, then the blower rig which maintained the envelope ballonet pressure on the ground was disconnected. Moments later the tiny figure climbed aboard the gondola, dwarfed by the sheer size of the airship. One engine coughed into life and the pusher propeller blurred into a silver disc in the sunlight. Then the second engine sprang into life and the field echoed briefly to the blare of sound as the engines were run up. The sound rose and fell as propeller pitch was checked in both forward and reverse pitch before the throttles were pulled back to let the engines idle quietly. It was almost eleven o’clock, time for the first flight of the day.

Without ceremony, more than a dozen Goodyear crewmen materialized from the Operations building, walked out across the field and took up their positions encircling the ship. Three men attended each of the two nose-mounted mooring ropes, while others steadied the gondola. Columbia was unhitched from the mast and was walked sedately downwind to provide room for the takeoff run.

Together with Tom Matus, Columbia’s pilot, I walked out to the ship. Columbia could carry six passengers and we had a full load this morning. The passengers boarded one by one, with the crew unhitching shot bags to compensate for the weight of each passenger as they boarded. I was the last one aboard, replacing the crewman who had been running the engines. Tom waved me forward to take the right hand seat at his side. As I took my seat the door was closed and locked behind me.

The interior of the gondola was a cheery place, with a bench seat for three at the rear of the cabin under a brightly painted ballooning mural. A further pair of seats was situated amidships, with our two crew seats at the forward end of the cabin. After a lifetime of strapping into various flying machines I was mildly surprised to find that there were no seat belts. Still, I reasoned, Goodyear had carried over a million passengers safely over the years, so maybe I was worrying unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, Tom was carrying on a conversation through the open window with his crew chief as the final adjustments were made to the trim by moving shot bags in and out of the compartments located on each side of the gondola. Satisfied with the trim, Tom nodded and the compartment doors were slammed closed, the warning lights on the panel winking out as the doors locked.

We were not yet floating. I realized that although the ground crew was steadying the gondola, our single wheel was still on the ground. Tom told me that normal procedure was for the airship to start the day slightly heavy. As fuel was burned off during the morning the ship would become lighter. The heat of the day would increase the helium temperature and make the ship progressively more buoyant.

There was obviously an art to all this lighter-than-air aviating.

It was time to take off. With a concerted heave on the rail girdling the gondola, the crew bounced Columbia on her single wheel. As the ship rebounded gently into the air Tom pushed the throttles forward. In a blare of sound the airship accelerated and Tom wound back on the large elevator control wheel to the right of his seat. The nose rose and with the engines at full power we climbed at an impossibly steep angle by aircraft standards.

Engines snarling, with the propeller noise reverberating back from the taut gray fabric of the airship’s belly, we climbed rapidly to Columbia’s cruising altitude of a thousand feet. Tom pulled back the twin throttles with the nose of the airship still pointing skywards. I instinctively braced for a stall but of course the airship continued to head upwards, slowly pitching down into level flight.

Tom grinned at my discomfiture. ”It gets all fixed-wing pilots like that the first time,” I nodded wisely as my heart rate slowly decreased. By now Columbia was heading south at a leisurely forty knots. The view was superb from the panoramic windows of the gondola. To our right lay Torrance and the sweep of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. In front of us Long Beach Harbor glinted in the sunlight and away to our left the San Gabriel mountains, rimming the Los Angeles basin to the north, floated with their bases in the morning mist.

Tom let me fly Columbia. Sliding into the pilot’s seat I took stock of the instruments. The familiar faces of the flight instruments, the engine controls and radios I recognized. Others were labeled “DAMPER CONTROL, HELIUM PRESSURE and HELIUM TEMPERATURE” These gauges and their readings were strangers to me.

The overhead instrument panel of the blimp contains a mix of familiar radios and engine instruments, with unfamiliar controls for the ballonets and helium-filled portions of the envelope. A large rear-view mirror enables the pilot to check on the well-being of his passengers in the gondola.

“Let’s head down towards Long Beach for a moment,” said Tom. Using my feet on the rudder pedals I tried to target the nose on the distant silver dome housing the Spruce Goose flying boat. The dome lay on the edge of Los Angeles Harbor. Our twin handling ropes dangling beneath the nose started to edge round the horizon towards the dome as I gingerly pushed on one pedal.

Becoming impatient with the lack of results, I pushed harder. Tom grinned and said
” You’ll find it’s not like an airplane,” and I wondered why.
Long seconds passed before eventually Columbia decided to swing. The nose accelerated past the dome and way off to the far side. My heart sank. This was ridiculous. It took a couple of oscillations before I got the hang of this delayed response and persuaded the nose back on target. There was a knack to it. More like trying to get a grazing elephant to head in the right direction. Gentle persuasion was the name of the game with this friendly giant.

I noticed that the nose had risen slightly as we droned under a small cloud and ran into an area of rising air. In a powered aircraft we would have felt it as turbulence, in a sailplane it would have been classed as a thermal, but in this blimp it was no more than a gentle rocking which would be more appropriate to send a baby to sleep in its crib.

Trying to outguess this behemoth I wound the elevator control wheel forward; too far, in fact, and I managed to get the nose well below the horizon. We were now pointing downhill at an oil refinery below us and I felt as if we were about to carry out a dive-bombing attack on the unsuspecting citizens of Wilmington below. Apprehensively I looked across at Tom, who was unconcernedly chatting with the passengers and pointing out landmarks. It felt to me as if we were plummeting earthwards until I noticed that the altimeter needle was still floating at the one thousand foot mark.

It now struck me what Tom had meant when he said, ”It doesn’t fly like an airplane.” Of course it didn’t. Despite having flying controls it was still a balloon, albeit a balloon one hundred and ninety two feet long. Irrespective of whether I pointed the nose up or down we would float in equilibrium at this altitude, loafing along with engines throttled well back. To climb or descend the engines would have to be used in conjunction with the elevators to power us up or down from this height. With an airship this size, containing one fifth of a million cubic feet of gas, and with a weight of around six tons, the inertia of the ship was significant. It took a bit of getting used to.

While I flew, Tom gave me some background information on the Goodyear airship operations. Since 1917 Goodyear had built more than 300 lighter-than-air craft, and at the time of my flight in the mid-eighties operated four blimps for publicity and camera ship purposes. The three US-based airships were named after yachts which had won the Americas Cup yacht race: Enterprise (which won in 1930); Columbia (yachts with this name won four times between 1871 and 1958): and America, winner of the first race in 1851. The last member of the team, airship Europa, was normally based in England for the summer and operated from a winter base near Rome.

During the daytime, the blimps were familiar sights at sporting events, being used as aerial platforms to enhance coverage of many sporting events, from the Rose Bowl to the Daytona 500. Each blimp carried a video crew and was a self-contained TV transmitting station with color video transmission from the blimp being transmitted by microwave to the dish of a ground station. Night-time use was even more spectacular, with a giant computer-controlled electronic billboard on either side of the blimp blinking out animated public service and advertising messages to the world. For this task a generator slung under the gondola of the blimp provided the electricity to power more than three thousand seven hundred lamps. These formed the messages and patterns which appeared in red, green, blue and yellow on each 105-foot-long sign.

Although passengers were carried, this was not a revenue-producing service. Those selected to ride in the blimps were guests of the various Goodyear franchises. Others were members of the press, film crews and, luckily for me, aviation writers.

In a slow circle we droned almost to the harbor, then curved over the industrial areas, with freeways looking like gray spaghetti carelessly thrown across the landscape and railroad marshalling yards patterning the ground below. As we turned northwards our nose pointed towards King Harbor on the coast at Redondo Beach. King Harbor was almost a second home to the ship and Columbia only weeks before had been solemnly declared the official bird of Redondo Beach.

The airship spent a good deal of its working life over the South Bay and Redondo Beach in particular, even monitoring the local ten-kilometer runs, although its normal working area could stretch from San Diego to San Francisco, depending on the job at hand. In 1984 Columbia was so busy during the Olympics that she was joined by sister ship America for the duration of the games.

The Goodyear Operations field came into sight. We changed seats and Tom took control of his airship again. The field, nestled between two intersecting freeways, looked much smaller from the air than it did before we took off. From our lofty perch I could see the handling crew gathering at the center of the field. The launching mast had now been folded down out of harm’s way, leaving the field clear for us to land. As we approached the field Tom discussed the wind conditions over the radio with his crew chief on the ground. Down on the field a hand-carried windsock showed that the wind down there was from the east. But the wind at our altitude was different, as became apparent from Columbias’s drift over the ground. Tom elected to land from the north-west. We circled over the freeway, the huge shadow of the blimp sweeping over the cars scurrying below.

Nose down and engines roaring, Columbia started to descend. As the airship lurched in the bumpy air at the lower altitude it was a busy time for Tom, who had to use large deflections of wheel and pedals to keep us heading in the right direction. Despite this, everything appeared to happen in slow motion as we threaded our way between thickets of power lines bordering the field. We were settled on our approach when suddenly Columbia started drifting sideways.
The wind at ground level had changed again and the tiny hand-held windsock out on the field showed that a southerly wind had sprung up. This wind blew us off course at the most inopportune moment.

Engines roaring loudly, the blimp powers down final approach to the field, with the pilot often using full control deflections on rudder pedals and elevator wheel while battling stray wind currents and attempting to stay on course.

The ground crew could not catch us this time round. So Tom went forward on the throttles and back on the elevator wheel. Columbia climbed away for another approach. We circled the field and came in again. There were no problems this time. As the wind stayed on our nose during the approach the figures of the ground crew grew larger in the windscreen. Men grabbed the ropes and ran out to either side to steady the ship. With a soft jolt our wheel touched and we were down.

Nearing touchdown, the groundcrew prepare to grab the handling ropes dangling from the nose, and another group will grab the encircling rail to steady the gondola, while passengers carefully disembark one by one, being replaced one-by-one by the new passengers, so keeping the weight more or less constant.

Already the passengers for the next flight, an Australian film crew, were waiting off to one side. At the crew chief’s instructions we disembarked, one at a time, each person being replaced in turn by a boarding passenger. In this way the passenger weight aboard the gondola remained approximately constant and Columbia did not get too far out of trim. Goodyear ran a slick operation and it was only moments before the door closed behind the last boarding passenger. In a blare of sound Columbia climbed away on another flight, showing the Goodyear flag over the South Bay once more.

No comments: