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The view from the "Spirit of Innovation." (Photograph by George W. Stone)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Blimp My Ride

“My name is George, and I’m a Helium Head.”

There, I’ve said it—and it runs in the family. My dad’s a certified blimp freak. Every day he gazes skyward and thinks blimps. Half the time he’s not even hallucinating. The Spirit of Innovation, one of Goodyear’s four “aerial ambassadors,” is stationed in Pompano Beach, Florida, near where he lives. It rises and descends dozens of times a week, cruising above the coastline at 1,500 feet. It’s unmistakable. It’s amusing. And, to some, it’s an obsession.

Watching an airship hover over the ocean recalls the golden age of aviation and inspires big questions: What’s it filled with? (Helium.) How fast does it go? (It cruises at 30 mph.) Can a drunk seagull puncture it? (Doubtful.) Will it explode? (No. Among other key differences, the Hindenburg was filled with flammable hydrogen.) None of these issues are of much concern, however, to my dad. His only question is: When can I ride?

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My dad, the original Helium Head. (Photograph by George W. Stone)

So when he turned 75, I decided it was high time for him to become a high flier—and the good people at Goodyear obliged (the blimp mostly covers major sporting events; private rides are a rarity).

To me, it’s funny that the world’s largest tire and rubber company is also the world’s most visible airship advocate. But Goodyear has built more blimps than anyone in the world (since 1925).

And they’re huge.

As we were led to our zeppelin, my sense of scale slipped into awe. At 192 feet long, about 60 feet tall, and 50 feet wide, the Spirit of Innovation has no match when it comes to metaphors. Blue whales are only about 90 feet long, and they don’t glide. This airship is so buoyant it would float away if it weren’t for the 14 burly support crew members who dangle from its moorings. Two vectoring propeller engines provide thrust, but lift has mostly to do with the helium inside an ultra-thin neoprene-impregnated polyester fabric envelope that expands with temperature and atmospheric pressure. If that sounds technical, think of a silvery birthday balloon with a gondola full of people, floating over sharks.

“Some people feel the need for speed. Clearly I don’t,” says Mandy Martin, one of few female blimp pilots in the world, as she powers up for takeoff at a steep 20- to 30-degree pitch. Once aloft, the airship is constantly buffeted by wind, making piloting a physically demanding job—especially on the Spirit of Innovation, which is operated mostly manually by a wooden elevator wheel (up and down) and two rudder controls (left and right). Next year, Goodyear will unveil a bigger (by 50 feet), faster (by 40 mph), totally teched-out ride that runs by electronic controls. But Mandy—an Air Force veteran—is an old-school zeppelin kind of gal.

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The crew that helped us launch, and brought us back down to Earth. (Photograph by George W. Stone)

When you’re riding high in a blimp, a certain delirium settles in. My helium-headed father looked as if he’d inhaled a tank of laughing gas as we made our sweep of the Florida coastline, north to Boca Raton, south toward Fort Lauderdale.

And, oh, the sights we saw: coral shoals, sailboats, Hillsboro Lighthouse, the Intracoastal Waterway, golf courses, Golden Girls neighborhoods, a fishing pier, beachcombers, and massive schools of spinner sharks much closer to shore than you want to know. We even flew over my mom, who waved to us (she’s terrestrial). We waved back through open windows, careful not to drop our cameras into the lethal waters.

While there’s nothing particularly scary about flying in a zeppelin, it does set the heart racing. Perhaps it’s the novelty of it all. Or the loopy idea of being carried away by helium. Or maybe it’s just fear of angry birds. Whatever the reason, descending feels a bit deflating.

Before we knew it, we were zeroing in for a landing, nose-cone headed straight for crewmen who would tether us again to the Earth. Our hour-long ride was over so quickly I never even thought to ask what message was illuminated on the airship’s blinking light sign. What I hope it read was: “This Blimp’s for You, Dad.”

George W. Stone is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine.