I had been mired working on a proposal in southern California, not even able to enjoy the good weather. On my way back home after a long two-week stint, I was heading north on I-405 to LAX when I spotted the Goodyear blimp Spirit of America moored next to the freeway. I exited 405 and wormed my way through the local neighborhoods to get closer for some photos. I was finally able to make my way next to the wide-open launch park at the Goodyear Blimp Base Airport for the Spirit of America.
Goodyear's Spirit of America, N10A, was moored with a ground crew in preparation for some afternoon demonstration touring flights. I talked with a group from a local car dealership who were gathering for a flight opportunity in a few moments. As I began to describe my request to get close to the blimp for a few photos, I became caught up with the small group as the local Goodyear flight coordinator began to describe the upcoming flight, and reviewed safety and flight procedures.
Now accepted into the group, I walked with them to the Spirit of America as it landed and prepared to launch again. I made it as far as jumping into the far back seat, when the sixth member of the group finally showed up. As I reluctantly exited, I got some good photos, while the coordinator stated "I've actually got one slot on the next flight in a hour - want to fly"? My kind of question!
I quickly rearranged my LAX United departure, and got a detailed background briefing with the next group of prospective fliers. As we watched the Spirit of America approach and land, I was able to get the best seat in the house as we boarded, right up front with a stupendous view out the open right sliding window.
The five other passengers belted in, and pilot Charlie Russell gave us a quick pre-flight brief. Charlie quickly added power, and then pitched the nose of the blimp up to about a 20-degree climb angle, which felt very impressive in an aircraft this size. We climbed at over 1000 feet per minute, and then smoothly leveled out at about 1000 feet AGL. The day was a rare one for Southern California, with almost no haze and superb visibility.
Charlie asked the six of us where we'd like to fly, and when there were no suggestions from the folks in back, I suggested that we head south over the Long Beach airport and then take an aerial tour of the coast and the Queen Mary. Charlie was happy to oblige, and we stately motored south at our blistering cruising speed of 29 miles per hour!
I was impressed by the full set of IFR instrumentation, and Charlie described the IFR suite, with ILS and GPS systems, plus weather radar. The blimp obviously spends most of its time in VFR conditions, but Charlie said it handles well in IFR conditions, other than high winds.
After talking with Long Beach tower, we cruised directly over the airport and the Boeing C-17 assembly facility, then turned and headed for Long Beach harbor. A number of VFR light aircraft cruised by and waggled their wings at us, obviously enjoying the sight of this huge ship waltzing through the sky. As we approached the coast, Charlie warned the passengers that we were going to descend for a closer look, then amazed us all by using the large control wheel to pitch us down to a minus 30-degree angle and point directly at the Queen Mary. I felt like I was standing up on the front rudder bar as the entire Long Beach harbor spread out in front of us.
Charlie leveled the Spirit of America at 500 feet, and all the passengers began handing me their cameras for unobstructed views of the Queen Mary through my 2ft x 2ft open side window. I also had some great views hanging out the window taking photos aft toward the engines. All Charlie asked was that I didn't drop anything!
Since I was sitting in the virtual co-pilot seat, I had a great time discussing the intricacies of blimp flying with Charlie, and getting a feel for pitch control with minor movements of the giant pitch wheel.
We cruised over the expansive Long Beach harbor, dock and cargo areas, and then finally set up after an hour in the air for our approach. Again Charlie started a 30-degree descent, and we aligned ourselves on final approach to the Carson Blimp base. The ground crew patiently waited as Charlie leveled off just a few inches above ground level and made an impressively smooth landing and capture.