SUFFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio — It resembled a giant erector set, and the men working on it looked as happy as kids with a new toy at Christmas.
But this was serious business, as the men at Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake hangar were literally building Goodyear’s airship future: the first of three larger, faster airships that will replace the company’s iconic blimp fleet.
“We are just at the dawn,” of a new airship era, Nancy Ray, Goodyear’s director of global airship operations, said recently at the hangar.
Behind her, a crew of German and American workers assembled part of the towering aluminum and carbon fiber internal frame of the airship that will be 246 feet long — 50 feet longer than a Goodyear blimp.
The workers tightened bolts and tension cables as media and personnel at a media-only open house looked on.
“I’ve been in aviation my whole life and to have an opportunity to be a part of this has been amazing,” said Goodyear airship mechanic Tom Bradley.
“We high-fived each other” when construction began March 10, Bradley said, motioning toward German mechanic Markus Draeger of German airship company ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik.
Nearly two years ago, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. said it planned to replace its three-blimp U.S. fleet with the bigger semi-rigid airships — with an internal frame — to be jointly built by Goodyear and the German ZLT Zeppelin company.
Last September, the German-made parts began arriving at the Wingfoot Lake hangar.
The internal frame is one of the significant features that will separate the new aircraft from Goodyear’s current fleet.
While purists will point out that blimps do not have internal frames, Goodyear officials plan to still call the semi-rigid airships “Goodyear blimps.”
The Spirit of Goodyear blimp was at one end of the hangar while the crew worked on the inside skeleton of its replacement at the other end.
Ray said the new airship will be flying in 2014, carrying Goodyear’s blue and gold logo over sports and other events.
The plan is to have the second new-generation airship flying in 2016 and the third in 2018. Each of the modern Zeppelin craft will be built at Wingfoot Lake. Each will cost about $21 million, Goodyear has said. All three U.S.-based blimps were built by Goodyear and Lockheed Martin.
The new airships, in addition to being longer, will be slightly shorter in height.
“It’s going to look long and skinny as compared to the kind of chubby one we have today,” Ray said.
The new crafts will be powered by three 200-horsepower prop engines.
Two of the propellers pull the airship and one pushes at the tail; the current blimps are pushed by two engines mounted off the cabin, or gondola.
The propellers can be tilted up and down, or vectored, which allows the airship to take off and land in smaller spaces.
“We’re going to get a lot more speed; we’re going to be a lot more efficient,” Ray said, noting the lightweight materials being used to construct the frame.
Ray said the cruising speed of current blimps is around 30 miles per hour, while the cruising speed of the new airship will be about 50 to 55 miles per hour.
The blimp also will be quieter and its gondola will hold more people — 12 instead of seven.
Goodyear officials said they haven’t decided whether the new airship will be called the Spirit of Akron or something else.
For now, the airship goes by the moniker Goodyear NT. NT stands for “new technology.”
The partnership between Goodyear and the German ZLT Zeppelin is a return to the roots of Goodyear’s airship program. ZLT Zeppelin, which dates to 1995, is a reconstituted version of the German Zeppelin company that Goodyear worked with decades ago to bring rigid airship technology to America.
That history has been hidden in plain sight for decades — the GZ in the current fleet of GZ-20A blimps stands for “Goodyear Zeppelin.”
Goodyear has built and operated more than 300 lighter-than-air vehicles since 1917, including two large rigid airships.