AKRON, Ohio -- Looking down at his landing pad several miles ahead and a thousand feet below, James Kosmos can't tell which direction the windsock is pointing, so he can't tell which way the wind is blowing.
But no matter: 14 people have arranged themselves in a horseshoe pattern on the landing pad, expressly to let him know which way he should come in.
Kosmos is a Goodyear blimp pilot, and I'm sitting right next to him in the cockpit of the Spirit of Goodyear, one of the tire company's three airships. We're just about done with a glorious flight over Akron, where the company is based, and are slowly and smoothly making our way back to Wingfoot Lake, where the blimp lives.
Though he's a pilot, Kosmos is just one of 21 members of the Spirit of Goodyear's permanent crew, a group of people that works together year-round as they take the blimp around the country, working countless events as a flying television camera platform, all the while being the best possible tire ad that money could buy.
I'd come to Akron on Road Trip 2013 to see how Goodyear makes racing tires, and to see how it runs blimp operations. Now, on a stunningly beautiful day, with my ride almost over, I hardly want to return to Earth.
Down below us, I see Goodyear's magnificent, 800-foot-long airship hangar, built in 1917, inside of which the company is actively constructing its next-generation blimp, which is actually a zeppelin. Outside the giant building, I can see the blimp's permanent mast, a metal pyramid on wheels that the Spirit of Goodyear mounts when it's home, and done flying for the day.
I can also see the other major elements of the blimp's support infrastructure: a tractor trailer, a bus, a trailer, and a van. These are the things that the 21-member crew -- which includes four pilots, 16 ground crew, and a public relations manager -- take with them as they tour the country for much of the year. The Goodyear blimp is famous, and seems light as air, but it requires a lot of effort, and even more equipment, to ply the skies of America.
And ply those skies it does. For producers of TV sporting events, the blimp is a godsend, given that it can aim a camera with 360 degrees of movement at, say, the Super Bowl, from 10 feet below its gondola. Moving slow and deliberately, that means capturing game shots that would be nearly impossible otherwise. And it doesn't take extra people to run those cameras: the blimp's self-sufficient crew includes several members who are trained camera operators, as well as heavy duty mechanics, electronics technicians (who also program the blimp's electronic sign), and an operations coordinator.
Like its sister ships, the Spirit of Goodyear has a functional range of about 250 to 350 miles a day, largely due to what it takes to move the rest of the infrastructure to wherever it might be going. The blimp itself can stay airborne for about 36 hours, but without its crew and its equipment, it can't go anywhere at all. After all, the team's semi truck contains the blimp's mobile mast, as well as all kinds of other tools and parts that help keep it aloft.
For Kosmos, a former airplane pilot, flying the blimp is much more fun. Part of that is the challenge of having to actually fly the airship, versus doing most things on autopilot. The blimp is a different beast every time. It might be light on one landing, and heavy on another. That means a constant reading of all kinds of variables, among them keeping steady track of the temperature of the 202,700 cubic feet of helium inside the blimp's giant envelope, or the wind and the thermals that can so quickly make a smooth flight bumpy and exciting.
While the pilot is in charge when the blimp is in the sky, a crew chief or assistant crew chief has the reins when it's on the ground. That's literal, as well as figurative, since the airship has ropes that hang down that have to be grabbed upon landing and pulled taut to keep it from getting blown around by the wind when it's unloading or loading passengers, or before it connects with its mast.
At the same time, the blimp is never alone. At least one crew member stays with it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure that the proper balance of air and helium is maintained as the airship's interior ballonets -- two giant air bags that inflate or deflate depending on whether the helium is expanding or contracting -- change size. Otherwise, there could be a disaster.
Of course, the three current Goodyear blimps' days are numbered. Next year, the first zeppelin will be introduced into the fleet, replacing the Florida-based blimp. And then the same will happen in 2016 to the California airship, and finally in 2018 to the Spirit of Goodyear here in Ohio. All because the zeppelins can hover -- providing better TV shots for sporting events -- fly quieter, and offer better economics.
But for now at least, Goodyear's blimps are still with us, and still drawing smiles wherever they go, and still advertising Goodyear tires. And Kosmos is still enjoying flying the Spirit of Goodyear over and over again, and training others. After all, as director of global airship operations Nancy Ray put it, "these pilots have the best sales job in the company."