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After Tampa visit, big changes coming for Goodyear blimp (w/video)

The view from inside the Goodyear Blimp Sprit of Innovation. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
The view from inside the Goodyear Blimp Sprit of Innovation. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Apr. 7, 2015

ABOARD THE GOODYEAR BLIMP — Soon enough, David Bowling won't have to work so hard to steer his giant "couch in the sky." Things are about to change in the world of blimps, and that's bittersweet for Bowling. For now, though, the captain of the Spirit of Innovation, one of three dirigibles in Goodyear's trademark fleet, is spinning a wooden wheel to go up and down, tapping foot pedals to go right and left. It's old-school.

"Flying this thing, you're a harmonica short of a one-man band," says the 37-year-old, who adds that "no one ever believes me when I tell them what I do."

Blimp technology hasn't changed in nearly 100 years. It's basically a steerable balloon — helium, a lot of helium, does the trick— with a rudder, propellers and whatever weather conditions Mother Nature whips up.

"When it gets hot, you climb like a homesick angel," Bowling says. "If it gets cold, you start dropping like a greased anvil."

At the end of this year, however, Goodyear will unveil a sleeker model of blimp: the Zeppelin NT, says Dan Smith, Goodyear's airship PR specialist. It will take pilots about a year to train in the new behemoths. "I need to see all four seasons," Bowling says. "See how the ship reacts in different environments."

The wheels and pedals will be gone in favor of a cockpit that looks and operates more like a jet airliner. New propellers will be able to oscillate, allowing the blimp to literally hover in one place, usually over a sporting event — for instance, Amalie Arena in Tampa, over which the Spirit of Innovation will be flying tonight for the 2015 NCAA women's basketball championship game between the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame.

The old blimps don't have seat belts; the new ones will. The old blimps don't have bathrooms; the new ones will. The old blimps seat six people; the new ones will seat 12. The old blimps are just under 200 feet long; the new ones will be 246 feet long.

Heck, the Goodyear blimp won't even really be the Goodyear blimp anymore; instead, it will be a "semirigid airship," mainly because an internal skeleton will be used. The old blimps deflate; the new ones won't.

"It's the end of one era, and that makes you sad," Bowling says. "But it's the start of a new era which makes you happy."

The Spirit of Innovation, which is based out of Pompano Beach and is only 9 years old, will eventually be retired.

• • •

Imagine the Dumbo ride at Walt Disney World — but, you know, 1,000 feet in the air.

On this gorgeous day, cruising in a blimp is a calming, mesmerizing experience, at about 30 mph. (The old blimps can go as fast as 50 mph; the new blimps will be able to go 70 mph.) It's spectacular, although if you have fear of heights or flying or tight spaces or being popped, it might not be for everyone.

Liftoff is akin to a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float, men on the ground mooring the blimp just as they do with Snoopy or Woody Woodpecker. "They're going to throw us into the air," says Bowling, who was a commercial pilot before going the blimp route.

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It's a pink-knuckle thrill when the captain has to adjust to wind changes (he watches birds to gauge updrafts and downdrafts) or temperature fluctuations (flying over hot rooftops messes with a blimp more than flying over the water of Tampa Bay). He spins that wooden wheel on his side, and the blimp leans into the most nonthreatening and slowww nosedive ever.

At one point, a dispatcher at Tampa Executive Airport, where the blimp is stationed for a few days, warns him of orbiting birds. "I don't trust them," Bowling says. "Very Hitchcockian."

This is a relaxed man.

Goodyear's reasons for the new blimps, which use state-of-the-art German technology, involve allowing more aerial coverage, more sporting events. The fleet will stay at three sites — one in Florida, one in California, one in the home base of Akron, Ohio — but will be able to span more distances, cover more events faster.

"They're unreal," Bowling says.

Goodyear's blimps are single-pilot vehicles, and yet the current physical demands on a captain often call for two fliers to work a shift. It took about seven hours to fly from Pompano to Tampa, which is too much for one pilot. Bowling needed help.

Soon enough, though, the physical demands, the challenges won't be as tough. The ride will be easier, his muscles will be less achier. He'll miss some of it, the old-school simplicity, but he looks on the bright side: Now maybe he can watch even more of a NASCAR race or an NFL game that he's flying over. "Hey, it's a free ticket," he says. "Not a bad way to spend the day."

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.