The ride on the Goodyear Blimp and the day spent on the USS Topeka, a LA Class Nuclear Submarine, with my friend, Joyce Gosnell, were two of my most memorable travel adventures in my life. Here is her account of our Blimp trip.
The controls of the Goodyear Blimp
By air - the Goodyear Blimp by Joyce Newcomer Gosnell
On Monday, January 6th, 1992, John and Jim took Joyce out to dinner, for her birthday. We went to the Japanese restaurant at the Overland Park Marriott, and were seated with a family of four, and a single man, all of us ready for the flashy show of Japanese cooking with twirling knives. J & J handed me a BlimpBucks certificate, see attached, and so, being totally without inhibitions, I asked for everyone’s attention, stood up and sang the demanded tune. The two children in attendance, 13 and 8 years old were agog, the father was a bore, the mother was mildly amused and the single gentleman was tickled. I did have the grace to explain this seemingly peculiar behavior, and we got to chatting, while the chef tossed rice balls all around us, demanding the return of same even after they’d landed on the floor, and eventually hitting our mouths (along with our hair, clothes, etc.)
We enjoyed the outing, and my BlimpBucks were more-than-generous, covering my airfare as well as my meals.
I’m 62 years old today, and have achieved a dream I’ve been cherishing since March, 1978Calmost 14 years ago.
Tuesday afternoon, Peg Britton and I flew to Houston, bunked at the Intercontinental Airport Sheraton, where we’d secured connecting rooms, for the simple reason that Peg could enter, perhaps win, a snoring contest with Betty B. We had a nice dinner in the hotel and bedded down. So far, this is pretty boring stuff, although we brightened things somewhat with matching Groucho Marx glasses (fortunately Peg has no shame either!) And Peg’s gift of a day-glo red condom was source for much speculation by both of us. (Need I add that said object is yet to be used? But it’s nice to know that one has such a thing available at all times. Who knows, huh?)
The national weather forecast for the Houston area called for rain, fog, and more rain for the next several days, but I leaped from my bed at 5:30 AM on Wednesday the 8th to determine for myself that it was, for a certainty, pouring down rain. Why, you might well ask, did I give a damn about the weather? Well, I answer, because Peg and I were scheduled to ride the Goodyear blimp America at noon, the big catch being the two words, Aweather permitting.@ At 6 the rain had stopped, at 7 it began, at 7:30CCwell, you get the idea.
We called the Blimp Airfield at Spring (pronounced locally as Sprang), Texas, and spoke with my by-now-old-pal Eddie Ogden, the Blimp Coordinator. He seemed glum regarding the weather, mumbling something about a Pacific front that was stalled. I point out to Eddie that rain is just water, and he points out that when you spread water over an item that’s 192 feet long and fat, there’s just too much weight. Peg and I secured our Ford Escort rental car, barely averted getting strangled by those damnable automatic shoulder harnesses, and headed north for Sprang, with Peg reading the map and me driving. With a minimum of miscues, we found both Sprang and the Goodyear airfield, the latter being not too difficult since there’s precious little in Sprang of any account other than the Blimp.
Eddie was not encouraging, and said thanks for the rum bread I’d brought him, but allowed as how even a rum-bread-bribe would not affect the weather. Peg acted truly pitiful, mentioning casually the fourteen years I’d been writing Goodyear, the fact that we’d come 1,000 miles (a stretch of the truth by probably 300 miles give or take,) the cost of our journey (no stretch needed here,) and she seemed to me to imply that this jaunt was our last fling in lives soon to be snuffed by some unnamed and mysterious malady. A model of public relations skill, Eddie just suggested we first go to the hanger and study the America, asking questions of the crew there, and then find Sprang Oldtown, and browse through the scads of touristy shops, and call him every hour. Dutifully we did both, but being with the blimp just whetted our appetites to see her in the air, with us in the gondola.
Again with a minimum of miscues, mostly my fault because without the sun I’ve no sense of direction whatever, we found Sprang Oldtown. We were further depressed not only by the rain, but by comments from fogies young and old who felt certain we’d never get a blimp ride today. One snippet of a clerk in a Quik-Trip told Peg definitively that we’d never get a ride unless we Aknew someone.@ Heck, I know lots of people, so her opinion didn’t seem valid to me.
We wandered in and out of rain showers, rain puddles, and the truly-ghastly little shops in Sprang. The selection varied from T-shirts to candles, but all the shops vied to have the sweetest, nastiest odor of potpourri. I felt like I’d been swirled about in a toilet housing one of those pink thingies that reek.
We call Eddie. No go.
We ate lunch, not bad, in an about-too-cute Texas cafe. Peg and I split a bowl of seafood gumbo, and note that it has sausage in it. We later note that in Texas there’s sausage in everything but ice cream. What a peculiar eccentricity.
We call Eddie. No go.
We wander around the streets in Sprang.
We call Eddie. No go, although we are re-scheduled for the last flight of the day, which is 4:30. Why don’t we check in about 3:45.
We tire of calling Eddie, the shops in Sprang, and the rain, and elect to go sit in the nice little waiting lounge at the airfield. The waiting lounge needn’t be large since the blimp carries only six passengers.
Slumped in our chairs, studying our muddy tennis shoes, we keep insisting to each other that there’s more visibility and that it’s getting brighter outside. Just as I notice that the hangar door is slightly open, Don McDuff, one of the two pilots on call that day, comes out to chat with us, and says that if the rain will hold off just a bit, we’ll get our ride in. Eddie Ogden sails out of the building, telling us to enjoy our ride, and we’re scheduled for an hour-long ride instead of the usual twenty minutes. My already wrinkled old body is awash with goosebumpsCan appalling but true fact.
The hangar doors open wide, and a big yellow tractor with a super structure appears, latches on to the nose of the blimp and starts pulling her outside. She’s so beautiful.
“We’re really going?”
Trailing under and around the blimp are fourteen men, holding ropes, guiding, attending. I’m eyeing the sky and mentally egging the crew to speed it up before it starts raining again. Don McDuff escorts us out to the launch site, and we pause while he takes pictures of us standing before the America. Our pilot is to be Larry Chambers, so Don McDuff waves goodbye and we climb up the short ladder into the gondola. After an introduction, we seat ourselves for our private blimp ride. It’s at this point that I have a terrible feeling that I’m going to embarrass myself and cry. Maybe I’m older than I think?
I’m rescued from maudlin when Larry says for one of us sit up beside him, so I graciously shove Peg aside and leap into the copilot seat.
Larry chats with the office, the men outside are doing >things= and then Larry begins explaining the procedure. We hover just above the ground, the nose tether is released, and the crew is hanging on to their ropes. We must get weighed, which event was, and still is, a bit foggy in my mind, although it involved an instrument dangling from the nose that a crew member plugged into something he was holding. We must be AOK for weight, because the crewmen release their ropes, Larry pulls back on a big wheel by his seat (much like a wheelchair wheel) and the America is aloft. Larry starts the two small engines that power the small propellers, and away we go.
Yes, it’s a tad noisy, but not bad, and we begin asking questions. I’m surely repeating the questions asked by virtually every person who ever gets a ride, and Larry is answering each query as though he’d never heard it before. We check out the weather. With the nose down, there’s just ground clutter on the radar screen. With the nose up, we find rain over downtown Houston, and rain around the Intercontinental airport.
Ideal altitude is 1,000 feet, although she can go to 10,000 feet. Usual speed is 52 miles an hour, although at one point, a head wind reduces that 52 MPH to a snail’s 5MPH. Wishing to appear intelligent, and curious besides, I ask, AAnd what is that digital readout? It’s surely important because it’s so bright and big.@ Larry dryly informs me, AWe call that a clock.@ True, it was military time, but my idiocy draws a muffled guffaw from the back seat. I retaliated in like fashion when Peg inquired if this machine had an autopilot. We were pretty much even.
Peg ceases her picture-taking and moves to the front seat. I’m happy. Larry says that it’s now time for us to fly, so he moves to the far seat, plugs his headset in on that side, and Peg takes the controls.
Big wheel forward, the nose goes down. Big wheel back and the nose goes up. Left foot pushing left rudder pedal, she turns to the left. And so forth. Peg seems to me to be entranced by the left and right part of flying, and to hell with altitude adjustment. If you leave that big wheel alone, the blimp flies level, so Peg doesn’t fool with it. We zig and zag, gee and haw. A lot. A whole lot. I’m happy.
Then it’s my turn, and since Peg had ignored the altitude part of flying, I take to working that big wheel and we duck and dive repeatedly. Oh wow, I’m happy. I note that the rudder controls seem sloppy, and Larry explains that a blimp does not have ailerons, so there’s no banking as in a plane, just flat turns. Of course. We head for the airfield, and Peg and I are both checking our watches, because it can’t possible have been 45 minutes since we left the ground hanging below that big bag of helium. We crab into the wind, and I head us, more or less, back to the airfield.
We’ve learned that there are two compartments, front and back, in each blimp, that air is taken in through a pair of scoops to keep the envelope inflated, air is released through a simple release plug, that this particular blimp requires about one tank of helium a day, that if you took a knife and stabbed a hole in the fabric, it might not be noticed for a month because the outside and inside pressures are so nearly the same, that the fabric for this blimp was manufactured in 1980, that all passenger seats are removed for the light shows or televising a sporting event, that Goodyear supplies its own cameramen, that the gyroscopic camera hangs ten feet below the gondola, that the light show is computer generated and can be programmed to read or show most anything, that Larry just smiles when I inquire whether he’s ever had a desire to spell out something really tacky for all the world to see, that Larry’s been a blimp pilot for 23 years (but doesn’t look it,) that the Houston base is closing, and the America is moving to Akron, that the new blimp being manufactured will be called the Spirit of Akron, which is a poopy name in my opinion since all blimps until now have been named after winners of the Americas Cup races, which means that the Spirit of Akron should be the Stars and Stripes, that all the fabric for this blimp can be stored in a crate roughly the size of a Volkswagen beetle, oh well, I’ll stop.
Larry takes over the control, moving back into the wheeled and ruddered seat, the crewmen appear from the hanger, and Larry adjusts to the wind, and brings that large craft straight to the tether, where a man on top of the tractor scaffolding hooks her up. Engines shut down, the crew hustles forward with little canvas bags of sand to attach to the ropes dangling from the blimp.
Larry fills out cards for Peg and me stating the date, log time, dual instruction, .5 hours of instruction L.T.A. (that’s Lighter Than Air,) the blimp number, his license number and name. We cherish those little cards. Larry was scheduled to fly a light show tonight, and so planned to stay in the craft, but Don McDuff informs him that it’s starting to rain, so all flights are over for the day. Peg and I have lucked into the single one-hour window of the day. Don McDuff escorts us back to the lounge, and Peg mentions how difficult it is to push those rudder pedals (she should know, she did it enough!) Don allows that on his first ten hour cross country flight, he flew five of the hours, and couldn’t get out of bed the next day. He now keeps those thighs and knees in shape by riding a bicycle thirty minutes a day.
We gush thank-you=s over everybody and glow back to our car. Peg’s in favor of trying to locate that snippy Quik Trip woman, but I veto that idea.
With only a single misstep and backtrack, we reach our hotel, make a few calls, and dine in the hotel bar, but, thanks be, there’s no sausage in my cheeseburger.
Peg’s busy chatting with a pal of hers, a nun who was kicked out of the convent for driving a tractor down the streets of Houston. I guess all would have been well except that she didn’t know how to stop the big thing, and some police had to jump aboard and bring that tractor to a halt. Can’t imagine why the nunnery would frown on an exploit of that nature, but apparently they did. I retire while Peg chats on.
Now, I’ve told you that this blimp ride experience was an upper, but little did I guess how much so for Peg, who rises wide awake at 2:30AM. By five in the morning she’s bored, and effects my wakening by turning on her television full blast. Give the devil his (or her) dues, Peg did not once blow a whistle in the night, so no complaints. We stir about, and head out for NASA, making our way on the beltways through downtown Houston, straight south to NASA, arriving at the gate to be told that they don’t open until 9:00 for visitors. We bide our time at the local Denny’s, eschewing the sausage. No doubt touring NASA, seeing the exhibits, and enjoying the well-presented tour of Mission Control should be a highlight, but I must tell you it was a pall compared to riding the America.
We scour about, with our usual number of stops to ask directions, and find the Flying Dutchman, right on the water, for lunch, pigging out on shrimp salad, fried oysters, and gumbo, glory be, without sausage. We even manage to find the recommended Roses seafood shop, where Peg buys a cooler, ten pounds of shrimp, two quarts of oysters, and suitable amounts of ice. The trouble with this purchase, of course, is that it takes two of us to lift it.
Back to the hotel, avoiding the Houston rush hour, a single falter in direction, check in the seat-belt-strangling Ford, and then wait to catch our 8:45 flight back to a pumpkin.