SBJ/June 23-29, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

Goodyear's newer, faster, quieter blimp to take flight in July

In the fall of 2007, executives at Goodyear Tire & Rubber knew they would soon need to make a decision about the future of one of the most enduring icons in American sports. The technology and physical structure of each member of its three-ship fleet of GZ-20 blimps was nearly unchanged since the design was introduced in 1969. And while the sky was not necessarily getting more crowded, the competition for sports air space was showing signs of heating up.

DirecTV had just unveiled its first blimp during Fox’s coverage of the World Series at Fenway Park in Boston, complete with the world’s first flight-worthy LED video display on its side. Earlier in the year, MetLife, with its illuminated balloons, strengthened its increasingly dominant position in golf by formally signing a deal to become the official aerial provider of the PGA Tour.

“No one wanted to discontinue the program,” said Scott Rogers, Goodyear’s chief marketing officer. “But like any smart corporation entering the end of a campaign, we did have to step back to take a really close look at whether we were still getting value out of the investment.”

OLD VS. NEW

How the new Goodyear ship compares to the one it’s replacing

GZ-20 Model Zeppelin
1972 Designed 2014
192 feet Length 246.4 feet
50 feet Max. width (inflated) 64.8 feet
59.5 feet Height 57.5 feet
None Internal framework Aluminum and carbon fiber trusses
202,700 cubic feet Envelope volume 297,527 cubic feet
12,840 lbs. Max. weight 19,780 lbs.
50 mph Max. speed 73 mph
7 Gondola seating Configurable for up to 12, plus 2 crew
3,472 lbs. Gondola weight, when empty 2,626 lbs
82,656 No. of LEDs on signs 37,000*
2 “pushers” Engines 3 “vectored”
210 each Engine horsepower 200 each
24 hours Endurance 24 to 40 hours
110/110 decibels Noise level inside/outside gondola 64/69.4 decibels
No Bathroom Yes

* The Zeppelin requires fewer lights because the new ones are 70 percent brighter and have four times the resolution of the prior lights.
Source: Goodyear

As the company was researching its next step, the global recession hit. People were driving less, and fewer people were buying cars. The company laid off nearly 10,000 employees, and Goodyear’s tire sales fell to near-historic lows.

In the years that would follow, there was much discussion and research. And as decision time approached in 2011, the marketing staff produced a bevy of blimp-related numbers:

n $10 million in television media value delivered by aerial coverage in 2010;

n Hundreds of thousands of dollars generated annually by charities as a result of blimp rides donated by the company; and,

n Hundreds of dealer and customer appreciation flights.

But like many marketing campaigns, regardless of product or medium, no line item could show how many tires, if any, were sold as a result.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

“The blimp serves us in four key areas,” Rogers said. “It broadens Goodyear’s awareness: It’s a floating ambassador, and we really feel it keeps us top of mind. Second, in broadcasts, it continues to give us media value in a unique way. Third, it helps us fulfill our mission of supporting our host communities, especially through the donations of blimp rides. And finally, the blimp is used to enhance customer appreciation and dealers’ events.”

With that perspective, in May 2011, Goodyear ordered three new ships from ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik in Germany, the same company that helped build Goodyear’s first Zeppelins in the 1920s. The average cost of the new ships, according to ZLT: about $21 million each.

Now, after more than a year of assembling, testing, training and navigating the Federal Aviation Association’s certification process, the first new Zeppelin is expected to make its maiden flight in mid-July. Goodyear is confident the investment will pay off, as the ships will be faster, allowing them to cover more events than the current fleet; quieter, which will be especially valuable to its golf and tennis business; and much more nimble, which should improve the blimps’ golf and race coverage.

But the biggest difference fans will notice are the improved LED signs. Goodyear changed aerial advertising in 1933, when the company attached lightbulbs to the side of its Defender blimp. Obviously there have been upgrades in technology since then, but key among the advances in the blimp space is when DirecTV in 2007 debuted a blimp that had a 2,100-square-foot LED “light sign” on its side. The display on that ship was further upgraded this spring and now boasts 235,200 LEDs. The result is a 900-pound board that actually causes the DirecTV ship to tilt at a 5 percent angle when airborne.

Goodyear’s new Zeppelin model will have two HD LED boards that are roughly 70 percent brighter than the current Goodyear blimp signs. The rectangular displays have more than 37,000 individual LEDs and are approximately four times the resolution of the current signs. The 23-by-39-foot port-side display will weigh nearly 500 pounds; the 8-by-32-foot sign affixed to the starboard side will weigh approximately 200 pounds. The signs’ difference in weight and their relative positioning on a ship aims to help maintain the blimp’s center of gravity.

As for what appears on those displays, DirecTV technicians currently have the unique ability to customize the message boards of that blimp while the ship is in flight. (The MetLife ships are without boards; Goodyear’s displays are programmed prior to flights, though the new Zeppelins will have custom capabilities.) That programming flexibility is important as the group seeks to interact more with fans on the ground via texting and social media. The blimp’s 30-by-70-foot screen also can display live video action, concerts, highlights, scoreboards, promotions and interviews — though these interactive offerings do require an additional layer of FAA approval.

Some of that video can come from the blimp’s own camera. California-based Cineflex provides the gyro-stabilized HD cameras used by each of the major blimp brands. A 250-pound fixture, the camera is mounted on the ship’s gondola with a zoom lens that provides up to 80-times magnification. The price of the camera, according to people in the industry and analysis of publicly available bid documents that cite the technology: approximately $250,000.

But that’s the cost of the blimp being the asset to televised sports coverage that it is.

“The aerial shots give the fan perspective of what the player is facing, the difficulties and nuances of each hole,” said Rob Ohno, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of corporate marketing. “That one camera gives you stuff you can’t get from a camera at the tee box: the green grass, blue water, white sands, the view from the ocean. And in golf, these aren’t just beauty shots. These help tell the story of each individual course and tournament.”

That technology came into play at the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., when a Rory McIlroy tee shot became lodged in a tree branch. No one on the ground could find it, but the camera crew on board the MetLife blimp overhead spotted the ball and passed the word down to the CBS crew on the ground who came over and pointed it out. McIlroy took a drop and a one-stroke penalty, made par, and ended up winning the tournament.

***

Several features of the new Zeppelin blimps stand to benefit both people on the ground and those in flight with the airship. Regarding the noise, the new, quieter ship is expected to operate at 64 to 70 decibels compared with 110 decibels for the current ships — the difference between a dishwasher and a Seattle Seahawks game. The new blimps’ cabins also will be able to accommodate more passengers, will have air conditioning, and, of particular importance to pilots on those 10-hour assignments, will have a toilet.

Less visible to fans watching on TV or at the event: The design of the blimp itself has changed little since Goodyear launched its GZ-20 models (the America and Columbia) in the late 1960s. Neither of those ships nor any Goodyear or Van Wagner Airship Group blimp since has had an internal frame or skeleton; they basically are a massive balloon coated with neoprene rubber filled with nonflammable helium, with a gondola, engines, and perhaps advertising displays attached.

The new Zeppelins do have a frame, so if one of the blimps were somehow to rupture and the helium floods out, the frame will hold the airfoils in place and prevent the balloon from collapsing over the gondola, which would effectively blind the pilot.

Handwheels aside the pilot's seat are part of the older blimps' navigation system.
Photo by: DAVID BROUGHTON / STAFF
As for the pilots, the biggest change for them in the new design is with the steering. The manual flight system of all the blimps in the Goodyear and Van Wagner fleets consists of rudder pedals (like a paddle boat) and handwheels aside the pilot’s seat that resemble an antique wheelchair. It’s a design that dates to a century ago, when the first blimp took flight.
For the Zeppelin, a joystick that controls the ship’s pitch and lateral movements will make piloting the new ships more like flying a helicopter during take off and landing, and like flying a small plane when covering an event.

Goodyear’s current ships have two 210-horsepower “pusher” engines below the rear of the cabin. The Zeppelins will have three 200-horsepower “vectored” engines, which can be tilted up and down, giving the pilot the ability to take off and land in smaller spaces and do zero-radius (or, pivot) turns that are critical to golf and racing coverage.

The Goodyear blimp’s regular 150-gallon fuel tank consumes 100-octane, low-lead fuel and averages nine to 10 gallons per hour over the course of an event.

“The new ship can run three engines at approximately the same fuel consumption as the two on the current GZ-20. The fuel efficiency really comes when traveling,” said Doug Grassian, Goodyear’s senior manager of airship communications. “The increased speed helps us get to our destination quicker, which translates into less fuel and shorter travel times. The improvement is in miles per gallon. Also, the new engines are electronic ignition, which is way more fuel efficient than the previous way we operated.”

The vectored engines should make life a little easier on the ground crew, as well. To secure the blimps during takeoff and landing, six to eight people hang on to mooring ropes attached to the sides of the airship, much like a dockhand does for a boat. Their task figures to become somewhat easier with the pilot having increased control over the newly designed ships.

One drawback to the Zeppelins is that they are expected to have a slightly shorter life span, estimated to be about a decade. In comparison, when the Spirit of Goodyear retired earlier this year after 14 years of flight, it did so with the distinction of having been the longest continuous operating airship ever.

While the FAA does not require a different license to fly a Zeppelin, all of Goodyear’s 12 pilots are going through ZLT’s Zeppelin training program, which includes 25 hours of classroom training and 150 hours of supervised flying with a qualified Zeppelin pilot.

The FAA requires that ships or any ship parts be replaced when the manufacturer’s specified use limitation is due. Van Wagner’s ships are made by its wholly-owned American Blimp Co. The company replaced Snoopy One in February but does not anticipate any of its other airships reaching the end of their useful life in the near term. The airship features a special internal illumination system that features two, 50-pound, 1,000-watt bulbs, allowing the airship’s envelope to glow during nighttime operations.

Goodyear’s California-based Spirit of America, launched in 2002, will be replaced by a new Zeppelin model in 2016. The company’s Florida-based Spirit of Innovation will be replaced by a new Zeppelin in 2019, rounding out Goodyear’s trio of ships.


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