The recent unveiling of Goodyear’s newest blimp, The Wingfoot One, has people once again talking about this fascinating mode of transportation. The blimp has played many roles throughout history, some of which may surprise you. Here are just a few significant points of interest along the zeppelin’s journey through the modern era.
The Initial Invention
Although concepts for a floating carrier aircraft have been around since the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, the modern blimp as we know it was invented by Jacque and Joseph Montgolfier, two French brothers who successfully flew the first hot air balloon to a height of 6,000 feet in 1783.
Within a year, fellow Frenchman Jean Pilatre de Rozier made the first manned flight. These early balloons were great at going up and down, but the wind was responsible for which direction you travelled. It was another 70 years before Henri Giffard successfully flew the first airship, which used an on-board steam engine for steering.
The Rigid Airship
The next major advancement in blimp technology occurred in 1900, when Germany’s Ferdinand von Zeppelin developed a rigid airship with a metal framework, a tail fin and rudders, and an internal combustion engine. Prior to this invention, the blimp was viewed by the larger public as a kind of curiosity — something you might see at the fair or read about in the paper. The “zeppelin” changed that, as blimps quickly became a primary form of transportation for civilians and military.
The First Airline
In many ways, the blimp is a precursor to the modern airline industry, and it helped warm people to the idea of air travel. DELAG, a German airline, was established in 1909 and was making regular transatlantic flights by the 1930s. Blimps also played a major role in early part of World War II. Three airborne carriers, the Shenandoah, Akron and Los Angeles, conducted several long-range scouting missions. Although these ships were vulnerable to attack, their ability to move quietly and take off and land vertically make them a precursor to advances military radar systems.
The role of the blimp as a form of commercial travel came to a sudden end with the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 during the ship’s 63rd flight. Caused by an electrostatic discharge which ignited leaking hydrogen fuel, the disaster killed 35 people and is responsibly for one of the most dramatic bits of video footage ever recorded. Although blimps had been involved in serious accidents prior to the Hindenburg, the widely publicized image of the ship’s steel hull engulfed in flames had an effect on the public opinion of blimp safety. Within a few years, the majority of blimps, including the DELAG, were retired from civilian service.
The Goodyear Blimp
Although the blimp ceased to be a primary form of civilian or military transportation, it remains an important symbol of human ingenuity and the power of flight to bring people together. The tire manufacturer Goodyear flew its first blimp over a national televised event in 1955 at the Tournament of Roses Parade. By the early 1960s, the Goodyear Blimp was a staple at sporting events across the country. Spanning 246 feet, Wingfoot One is just the latest in a long line of iconic blimps, and the company plans to add an additional two to its fleet in the coming years. Certainly, the blimp’s past is full of highs and lows, but with Goodyear in the driver’s seat, the future’s looking bright.