In the passenger and pilot area of the Wingfoot Two, it was easy to feel small in the sky — to forget that a helium-filled behemoth hovered just overhead, powered by three oversized propeller engines.
The Wingfoot Two, at 246.4 feet long, is only 55 feet short of the FirstEnergy Stadium football field it floats over on many Browns game days in downtown Cleveland. It can look small in the sky, but standing in front of it, preparing to run forward and board the few steps that led into the passenger area, the gigantic vehicle filled our field of vision. It moved with any slight breeze, bobbing above the grass like a huge, awkward bumblebee.
Earlier that day, we received a text from a Goodyear representative: “The crew is monitoring some wind gusts this morning. They are going to do everything they can to safely fly but if the winds pick up, flights might be
(Photo by Katie Holub)
Four Goodyear blimps exist in the world, with one in Europe and three stationed in the United States — one in Florida, one in California and one near Akron and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, blimp flights are hard to come by; Goodyear’s three U.S. blimps regularly tour across the country for games and other events. When we asked if we could take a blimp ride during a Browns game, Goodyear declined. Instead, we headed out on a brisk Thursday in October, following a couple of previous rain delays.
Open only to members of the media, Goodyear customers and local charity auction winners, Cleveland Magazine luckily got in on one of just a handful of flights left before the Wingfoot Two left for a Columbus trip to a Buckeyes game.
An informational safety video ahead of the blimp ride let me, photography intern Katie Holub and four other passengers know: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
There’s a lot of truth in that, since there aren’t a lot of blimps left in the world. Goodyear has a big stake in the blimp biz, operating about a third of all blimps globally. According to a Goodyear representative, only about a dozen operable airships exist in the world and Goodyear’s blimps are the only ones that fly on a consistent, year-round basis.
(Photo by Katie Holub)
A blimp is not a cheap thing to operate, considering high helium prices. According to U.S. Geological Survey data, in 2021, government users paid $3.61 per cubic meter for helium, and private industries paid $7.56 per cubic meter. Let’s take the average of the two numbers for a conservative estimate, and say Goodyear might get its helium for roughly $5.58 per cubic meter.
That means it might cost $47,011 to fill Wingfoot Two’s 8,425 cubic meters to take flight.
Why pay so much to essentially unleash a massive balloon into the sky?
It comes down to branding.
Goodyear’s been making blimps for nearly 100 years, placing its signature blue-and-yellow emblazoned blimps into the sky since 1925.
“We’re proud that we’ve been adorning the skies ever since,” says Emily Cropper, the director of Americas communication at Goodyear.
So, what, exactly, is it like to fly in the sky? During our windy excursion: a bit bumpy.
Instead of driving ahead like other modes of transportation, a ride in the Goodyear blimp is more a form of calculated meandering, slowly making your way and watching a massive shadow of the oblong beast track the land below you. A commercial plane travels at 550 mph; a blimp’s maximum speed is 78 mph.
(Photo by Katie Holub)
As we traveled, the pilots happily shared highlights of the scenery below us. Jerry Hissem, one of two pilots on our flight, has been flying Goodyear’s blimps for nearly 25 years.
“I compare flying in a blimp to floating in a bubble,” Hissem says, standing in the aisle and swaying to the side as the blimp takes a turn.
Myself, Holub and four other passengers filled the seats behind the pilots, buckled in for takeoff and landing but were otherwise free to roam around the small space, which included a bathroom. (If you’re wondering what the in-flight experience was like, it was pretty close to a tiny commercial airplane, complete with folding trays attached to each back, a compartment with informational materials and, yes, barf bags.)
Let’s reiterate: Unlike in other modes of transportation, you can really tell it’s windy when you’re 1,500 feet in the air, especially when you’re prone to motion sickness like me.
As the other passengers oohed and aahed at downtown Akron emerging below us, I took deep breaths, wondering if I’d waited a little too long to take a Dramamine pill that morning. The turning and shaking became a lot to combat while taking in all those beautiful views.
That “once-in-a-lifetime” reminder again rang in my memory, even as I — and this is true — threw up inside the Goodyear blimp. It’s certainly an experience I’ll never, ever forget.
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