Eye in the sky: Goodyear airship in town for football championship

You know it's a big event when an iconic Goodyear airship is flying overhead.
Published January 9 2017

ABOARD THE WINGFOOT ONE — There are nosebleed seats, and then there's this.

Some 1,000 feet up and well beyond the spiral of the most wayward punt or Hail Mary pass is airship assistant pilot Adam Basaran's usual vantage point for major sporting events.

Basaran will be one of four Goodyear pilots at the controls today as Wingfoot One, the tire company's state-of-the-art airship, makes its Tampa debut for the College Football Playoff National Championship.

The 246-foot-long airship will takes to the skies at 6 a.m. today, feeding iconic eye-in-the-sky shots of Raymond James Stadium and Tampa Bay for ESPN's buildup to the title game. Come game time, Goodyear will hand over aerial shot duty to the DirecTV blimp.

"You see from a vantage point that is fairly unique," Basaran said. "You can hear the crowd cheering from the ship."

Wingfoot One is technically not a blimp but a semi-rigid dirigible since it has an aluminum and carbon-fiber skeleton structure. It's sleeker, quieter and can stay airborne for almost twice as long as the traditional blimps the tire manufacturer is phasing out.

The airship has a maximum speed of 73 mph and, more importantly, is easier to maneuver. Adjustable propellers mean the airship can hover in one spot to hold a shot if required by the network director.

Those bird's-eye images come from a gyroscope-controlled camera mounted on the outside. A cameraman controls the direction and focus of the camera from a system that is bolted to the floor inside the airship.

The images are transmitted as microwaves to an antenna mounted on a trailer on the ground and then forwarded to the TV network as a live feed.

Wingfoot One has already covered several major sporting events, including the Daytona 500 and the parade in Cleveland that celebrated the Cavaliers' NBA championship in 2016.

Perched beneath 300,000 cubic feet of helium, weather is usually the biggest challenge for pilots, with strong winds making it tougher to maintain steady camera shots. They also have to be aware of the angle of the sun to ensure that the airship does not cast a big shadow across the playing field.

Goodyear officials would not divulge how much Wingfoot One cost, but it is a significant investment that is repaid through increased brand awareness, spokesman Dan Smith said.

In some ways, flying on Wingfoot One is like a regular airplane ride. The cabin, known as a gondola, has room for up to 12 passenger seats, each with a window view and a life vest stowed beneath. There is a toilet and a fasten-your-seat-belt indicator light for takeoffs and landings.

The similarities end there. Boarding is via a small metal ladder that moves as the wind buffets the airship. Instead of tiny portholes, the gondola provides wide panoramic views in every direction.

Once airborne, the engines are barely louder than a background hum even when two small Perspex windows are opened. Its typical cruising speed of 35 knots makes for a tranquil ride.

A former jet pilot, Basaran has been flying airships for four years.

From the epaulets on his crisp white shirt to his navy tie and wide sunglasses, he sports the classic pilot's look.

A closer inspection shows his allegiance to airships. A Goodyear enamel badge of an airship is pinned to his tie. An airship emblem enjoins the silver wings of the gold badge on his breast pocket.

The 35-year-old loves flying regular planes, but there is something special about an airship, he said.

"It's a little bit like a helicopter and a plane and a lot like a sailboat," he said.

But his job does mean he sometimes misses the big game even when he is hovering right above it.

Sometimes the camera operator will provide him with score updates received from the director. Other times, he just watches for visual clues.

From 1,000 feet up, a Clemson fan invasion of the field after a home football victory was like watching an orange wave engulf the field.

"I wouldn't trade this for the world," he said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.