That plump Goodyear blimp floating serenely over the football games to bring the television networks romantic pictures of America's stadia in sunlight, shawdow and floodlights, may be more than a floating camera platform. It could ba a portent of things to come, of a new way to get to and from metropolitan airports without fighting automobile traffic.
Here at the Goodyear Aerospace Corporation headquarters in the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company compound on the edge of Akron, aerospace engineers and designers are projecting a balloon airport shuttle, each blimp carrying 80 passengers and their baggage from downtown balloonports at 100 miles or more an hour through sunshine, rain, snow and/or hailand, of course, the gloom of night. And, most important, in almost guaranteed safety.
In all the years the Goodyear blimps have been carrying passengers and - more recently - television camera crews around this country and in Europe, they have never injured a passenger.
For environment and for people who live near the airports, the balloon shuttle promises ear relief. It would register less than 80 decibels, far below permissible levels for airplanes and passenger helicopters. In fact, that 80-decibel level is even less than the noise readiness generated by noisy airport and city buses, and by some big diesel trucks.
The airport balloon shuttle is not some impractical dream. It is been designed under the direction of Fred R Nebiker, manager of Aero Mechanical and Weapon Systems Programs for Goodyear Aerodpace Corporation. A U.S. Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean War, Nebiket believes in the practically of his project, basing his optimism on extensive knowledge of lighter-than-in-air airships, careful design work and wind tunnel testing. He says Goodyear Aerospace can build, fly and test a prototype all in 3 1/2 years, and regular passenger service could be introduced passenger service could be introduced by 1965.
All they need is $100 million to get the first one off the ground. Production models, if only 20 to 50 of the shuttles were ordered, might run $15-$20 million apiece, while in quantity production later the cost might drop below the present $3 millin it takes to buy a passenger helicopter.
A long visit here with Nebiker, with his slideshow of charts and diagrams and the briefing books already prepared by Goodyear Aerospace, leaves one convicted that the only remaining problem is where the development money is to come from. Prospect appear better than the total indicates bacause of current interest in Goodyear balloon developments by the national Aeronatutics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and by the Canadian Province of Albert, whose seemingly disparate interest are focusing on the potential use of airships. is appropriate, therefore, to look through Nebiker's design sketchbooks to see how we may get to the airport in the next decade. Our future vehicle is designated as the VTOL(for vertical takeoff and landing) Shuttle Concept for airways to major airports or to adjacent city centers, and for use with passengers or with passenger and cargo combined configurations.
First, for comparison, that Goodyear bump over football games is only a little fellow: 192 feet long, 50 feet in diameter, held up by 202,700 cubic feet of nocombustible helium gas capable of lifting a tiny cabin, its pilot and only six passengers. Two gasoline-burning airplane propeller-engines push it along at a 35-mile-an-hour cruise speed, with top of 50 miles per hour.
The airport blimp would be slightly longer at 238.5 feet, and slightly thicker in the middle--60 feet in diameter--and would contain more than twice as much helium, 428,500 cubic feet. Its passenger cabin, 48 feet long and about 12 feet wide (about the with of a small Beoing 707 cabin), would be slung beneath the belly of the blimp and suspended by a cable harness fitted in and around the big gas and air-filled neoprene bag.
The 80 passengers would sit in airplane-type seats, two abreast on eachside of the aisle in the two cabins, which would be separated by entrance vesibules and lavatories, with two more lavatories and a buffet and exit door at the rear of the aft cabin. In the passenger-cargo combination, the rear cabin would carry only freight.
The shuttle blimp would have four turboprop engines, jets turning widebladed propellers, two engines in front of the cabins and two at the rear. With their thrust of 35,000 horsepower the shuttle would cruise at 130 knots (150 miles an hour), although for city center-to-airport runs of 10-15 minutes at the most, 100 miles an hour is probably all it would have to fly. Its cruise speed would be more suitable for intercity flights, like New York City-Albany (150 miles) and Philadelphia-Washington, distances some feel are too short for commercial airline jet planes, and certainly too long to be comfortable in a helicopter.
While an airship normally gets most of its lift from the lighter-than-air quality of the helium inside its gas bags, the shuttle blimp, because of its aerodynamic design, would get additional lift from the passage of air over its skin, increased by its higher speed and landing and takeoff mobility because of its lift and the forward-upward surge from its engines tilted up for takeoff.
Because of its vertical lift ability, Nebiker said, it will be able to land and take off from a rooftop like a helicopter. However, since the shuttle blimp would reqquire at the absolute minimum an area "100 feet in a circle" to serve as the pad for the cabin area and engines, and the pad would have to be completely nobstructed for at least a surrounding area of 300 feet, according to NeBiker, the roof housing the pad would hav to be large and in the clear. That might limit possible rooftop sites in the heart of a metropolitan area, but would not rule out other ground-level sites. No special aerport construction would be required, he said.
(The blimp's "operational and maintenance costs" would be one half that of a helicopter's, Nebiker say; thus the price paid by a blimp passenger would be one half the rate charged the copter passenger. For comparison purposes, the rate charged by the now-defunct copter service from the roof of the Pan Am building above New York's Grand Central Station to the airport was $15 one way.)
All told, the airship airport shuttle sounds like a smooth, relaxing way to get to and from an airport, using less energy and fuel than helicopters (one-half per passenger mile of a helicopter's fuel consumption), with no expensive rights of way oo build and maintain for rail links to airports. On these points, plus less air and noise pollution at both ends of the city-airport runs, the airship shuttle appears to have many advantages. Plus the airship's safety record, and the obvious conclusion that while a pilot, like a baseball outfielder, might be forgiven for losing an approaching small airplane or helicopter in the sun, it would take a sightless pilot to fail to see a 238-foot blimp.
The reasons for believing that it will not be impossible to raise the $100 million needed to put a protoytype in the air are as interesting and challenging as the idea of an airship airport shuttle. The Province of Alberta's government is keenly interested and Goodyear is now involved in a six-month study to fit airship design to Alberta's particular needs. Alberta anticipates new pipeline construction for natural gas and oil through its wildernesses leading from the Mackenzie Fields of the Northwest Territories and Alaska. Alberta also has heavy lifting requirements for development of proposed plants in its wildernesses to convert oil sands into petroleum, an operation that requires heavy machinery and pipelines to transport the oil. The province must lift equipment to nothern minefields, and provide shuttle transportation to and from its distant mines and oil projects for the workers they will need. Goodyear has dreamed up a strange-looking combination of an airship or blimp with four helicopters to carry such loads.
NASA is interested in an eightmonth Goodyear Aerospace study for an airship to transport missiles and space vehicles that now are moved slowly by truck over carefully selected highway routes. The U.S. Navy has expressed interest in an airship to do heavy lifting of cargo containers from freighters anchored offshore of beaches where the Navy might have to make wartime landings. For that purpose, the heavy lift airship with four helicopters might prove the answer.
It may well be that the blimp's time has finally arrived. All we need is three years' work and $100million, which isn't such a lot of money whena Boeing 747 costs $45 million for just one plane.