With one of the strangest years of any of our lives progressing still in a less than linear fashion, there was something inevitable that my first flight since February 2020, a gap that would normally have seen short and long haul flights numbered well into double figures, would have an unusual feel.
It most certainly did, but not for the reasons I expected, it was nothing to do with the destination, instead it was because the machine I was boarding was not a BA A380, 787 or 777, or even an EasyJet A320!
It was a Zeppelin!
And not just any Zeppelin (a sentence which ranks well up there in the most bizarre I have ever typed!) but a brand new ship, recently commissioned to bring back to Europe a sight that had not been seen in the skies above major sporting events on this side of the Pond for decades.
For 2020 at Le Mans, the Goodyear Blimp was back!
It was there to add publicity to Goodyear’s return to Le Mans with five LMP2 cars doing battle in the 24 car class field ahead of the 2021 season when the brand will be the sole supplier to all LMP2 teams in the FIA WEC and ELMS.
That’s a massive step up from a brand that has not been seen until this year at Le Mans since 2006.
The scale of the investment is clear, major testing programmes with several teams and an entry new range of tyres for the current season, this is a long, LONG way from a simple rebranding exercise!
Back to the on-track product a little later, for now back to the Blimp.
First things first on that front, the Zeppelin, or the Zeppelin NT which is what the aircraft should correctly be termed, is NOT a Blimp!
Instead, it’s a semi-rigid Airship, whilst a true blimp has no rigid structure above the passenger gondola the Zeppelin has a high-tech framework within which the helium lifting agent is contained and onto which the three 200 bhp engines, and the passenger gondola, are attached.
The moniker ‘Goodyear Blimp’ though will remain, and that’s because in the field of corporate advertising the sight above major sporting and cultural events across the world, of an airship displaying the iconic, now 120-year-old ‘Wingfoot’ logo has been a staple for over 70 years. We’ll take a look at that astonishing and storied history in a separate feature, for now though back to the 2020 iteration of this amazing publicity icon.
For anyone used to the airline experience, this is a very different ‘happening’ and even for the smaller group out there that have had a chance to experience a helicopter, again this is something very different.
First things first, the fact that the three 200 bhp engines are not mounted onto the gondola means that both vibration and noise are HUGELY reduced from older style ‘ships’
Whilst there is some noise at full power on take-off and when manoeuvring it’s no worse than in a modern airliner and, once cruising, it’s perfectly possible to have a spoken conversation on board and be heard.
And then we get to the REALLY good parts!
Firstly the windows are huge and secondly, some of them open for reflection-free picture opportunities!!
Thirdly, as a photo platform this thing is unrivalled, pretty much rock steady, even with the iPhone I was wielding, the images gathered were astonishing. The onboard cameraman, shooting TV for the race told us that this was, by far, the best aerial platform in the world.
The experience is comfortable, the gondola roomy and very, very stable. The cars below could be heard very, very clearly!
If the wind conditions allow, it can hover/ loiter pretty much all day but, as TV viewers can attest from Le Mans it can cover the whole circuit pretty rapidly too!
In our 20 minute flight, we arrived above the circuit between Tertre Rouge and the first Mulsanne Chicane, loitered for a while before moving over to Dunlop Bridge, then to pit-out and finally to the infield with an excellent view of the final part of the lap.
The return of the Goodyear ‘Blimp’ proved to be quite an occasion, everyone at the circuit noticing its presence, the local populace turning out en masse to the landing field to watch its comings and goings (I remember doing this with my Dad many. many years ago when our local park was chosen as a staging point for a much earlier (and non-Goodyear) ship).
Indeed the inherent fascination with the Airship’s sense of occasion even led to us having a rather longer flight than planned as we circled the field awaiting the arrival of the next batch of guests, Pierre Fillon, Gerard Neveu and FIA President Jean Todt amongst them, Mr Todt had requested the opportunity to see the airship landing, and he was late!
No problem, we enjoyed the ride and the background story to Zeppelin from the pilot, Katherine (Kate) Board, the first, and still only one of two female Airship captains worldwide.
Kate told us of the history of the company, suppliers of the airships that formed the basis of the world’s first-ever commercial airline, and of the fact that the company was saved from oblivion by the world’s first modern crowdfunding effort.
Soon enough we were back on terra firma, what an experience, what a privilege, what a machine.
There’s little doubt that Goodyear will get plenty of value for money from the return of the ‘Blimp’ simply from its extraordinary visual presence and that the guests they invite aboard will get an aviation experience like no other!