It was Paul W. Litchfield who decided to put Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. into the blimp business. After watching a hot air balloon race in 1910, the Goodyear executive decided to do for the blimp what Henry Ford did for the Tin Lizzie.

"He wanted a blimp in everyone's backyard," explains Ron Bell, one of the pilots of the Goodyear blimp that yesterday had Washington-area heads craned skyward as it floated over the city to help celebrate the national Red Cross centennial.

To prove how useful a family blimp could be Litchfield photographed two out doorsmen fishing from their two-seater blimp over a lake. Alas, the blimp craze never caught on. Most blimp buffs blame the ghastly burning of the Hindenburg for the slump in blimp buyers' interest. Times got so tough, even Goodyear once considered abandoning its blimps -- that is until a slick public relations expert saw its advertising potential.

"It's incredible," says Bell, a 12-year blimp veteran. "People just can't see enough of the blimp now."

For example, since the blimp was spotted hovering near downtown Washington yesterday, phones at local Goodyear head quarters were jammed for hours. Seems just about everyone would like a ride on the blimp. Sorry, only very good Goodyear customers and dignitaries make it aboard.

But at least every week, Goodyear is contacted by someone who wants to rent the blimp for a party or put a birthday message on the Super Skyacular blimp sign -- 7,000 flashing lights, 105 feet long and 25 feet high. The stonefaced Goodyear folks say no. Only Goodyear ads and public service messages make the blimp -- like when one hovered over New York city during a water shortage and suggested that Big Apple natives shower together.

Although its called the Goodyear Blimp, it is really the Goodyear Blims you see -- three in the United States and one in Rome. And only the Florida-based Enterprise gives public rides. It can give rides to 80 of the 15,000 people who request a lift each day.

Once airborne, pilots give passengers a crash course in blimping. Pilot Larry Chambers, who carries a blimp shaped piece of the airship's fabric in his billfold, says the most frequently asked question is, "Can the blimp explode?" No, he patiently explains. Unlike the lighter-than-air aircraft of yesteryear, The gas which bouys the Goodyear blimp is non-combustible. Also, you could cut a hole the size of a car windshield in the $1.2 million blimp and it still would stay up for hours, he says.

Chambers is one of 20 blimp pilots in the world -- all of whom fly for Goodyear. He says people just don't believe him when he tells them he flies blimps for a living.

"Then the Goodrich jokes begin," says Chambers shaking his head.

With its two propellers running, the 192-foot-long, 59-foot-high and 50-foot-wide sausage-shaped blimp can travel up to 50 mph, but only if there's no headwind.

"Once, in a thunderstorm, we hit 70 mph winds," says Chambers, "and ended up going 20 mph backwards."

No one has ever been injured while flying in one of the Goodyear blimps, says Chambers, even though their pilots reoutinely turn the controls over to guests. The blimp moves so slowly that seats in the gondola do not even have seat belts.

"If we ran into a mountain," says Chambers, "we'd just bounce off."

There is, however, at least one blimp legend -- the tale of the Phantom Blimp."A Navy blimp is known as the ghost ship," says Bell, because in the 1950s, just outside San Francisco, it returned to its base empty -- its two-man crew having vanished.

Experts speculate that the first pilot fell overboard while trying to pull up seawater needed for ballast and that the second fell overboard trying to save the first, says Bell. The blimp headed home alone.

Although Goodyear blimps never did replace the trusty rowboat at the old fishing hole, Bell says blimp still are marketable.

For instance, Goodyear wants the Reagan administration to buy a small blimp so the Coast Guard can watch boatbound drug dealers and another for the U.S. border patrol to monitor illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mexico.

"Blimps are going to be big again someday," predicts Bell. "Mark my words, old Litchfield knew what he was talking about."