Newest Goodyear 'blimps' carry on legacy

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Game day has arrived. Clemson and Alabama are pumped up for the College Football Playoff National Championship, and so are thousands of fans who've made the trip to Tampa. And yet one of the biggest visitors in town is not wearing purple and orange or crimson and white.

It's hard to miss from either side of the bay -- the navy blue, gold and silver paint scheme of Goodyear's Wingfoot One airship really pops against the clear blue Florida sky. The iconic Goodyear blimp has made the trip up from its base in South Florida for tonight's championship game.

But this blimp is a little different. In fact, it's not a blimp at all.

"This is what we're currently replacing our classic airships with," assistant chief pilot Adam Vasaran explained during a flight over the stadium on Sunday.

Wingfoot One -- and its sister ship Wingfoot Two -- is still carried aloft by helium, but unlike its predecessors, it has a structure inside that big balloon area. Technically, it's considered a semi-rigid airship, like the Zeppelins of the art deco era.

Goodyear still calls the new ships "blimps," but often refers to them as "NT's," as in their model number, which is Zeppelin NT. The NT stands for new technology, of which Wingfoot One has plenty.

"There's a lot of improvements that help us with our jobs," Vasaran continued. "Probably one of the biggest things you'll see -- when we take off, when we land -- is we have thrust vectoring so we can hover like a helicopter, or take off and land vertically. The ship is also much quieter; it's quicker, it's more efficient. It's a really nice environment to work and it's a good camera platform for big games."

Indeed, the noise level inside the new airship's gondola is so low that the pilots can tell how a game is going without even looking out the giant panoramic windows in the cabin.

"We were over a Florida State game recently. All we could hear was fans doing the war chant," Vasaran laughed.

The blimps have been carrying TV cameras over big sporting events since the 1955 Rose Bowl. One thing that hasn't changed through the years is the support team required to keep the craft in the sky.

"The airship has to take all of its support personnel with it," Vasaran said. "So when we travel, we'll go out on the road with maybe 18 to 22 people. That includes a staff of up to five pilots, several mechanics, or technicians that do all the TV work. We need a camera operator on the ship, as well as two on the ground, to receive that signal to interface with the networks. And a couple crewmen to go with us. There's someone with the ship 24 hours a day, even when it's not flying."

Back in 1928, Goodyear began naming blimps after winners of the America's Cup yacht race. Then-CEO Paul Litchfield considered the airships to be yachts in the sky. Today's ships make that more true than ever - the crew described the ride as similar to a ship at sea, and that proved the be the case.

Wingfoot One handled the blustery January winds with ease, slowly bobbing through the sky during the hourlong round-trip flight from St. Pete Clearwater Airport to Raymond James Stadium.

In Vasaran's opinion, it's much different than being in an airplane. And, he says, it's the best way to see the country and to meet people.

"There's really no other way to do it," he added.