Flying above Atlanta aboard the Goodyear Blimp

The Goodyear Blimp is visible from far away, but arrives quietly. Its four propellers aren’t audible until the blimp is practically overhead, sounding much like a helicopter, and then the airship’s immensity becomes striking.

As long as 5½ school buses, as wide as four lanes of interstate highway and as tall as a four- or five-story building, the world’s most recognizable airship cuts an enormous figure when up close.

The blimp arrived in Atlanta Wednesday from its base in Pompano Beach, Fla., to provide aerial images of Thursday night’s college football awards show at the College Football Hall of Fame. The visit also was timed with the opening of an exhibit at the hall of fame celebrating the airship’s status as a college football icon.

The blimp, in fact, was installed as an honorary inductee in January. Since first providing images from the 1955 Rose Bowl, the blimp’s presence has been as much a certifier of big games as top-10 rankings and the presence of other, smaller bags of hot air.

“This is a tradition of college football like no other, so we’re honored to have it here,” hall of fame CEO Dennis Adamovich said Wednesday night at the unveiling of the blimp exhibit in one of his final acts as the hall chief before stepping down early next year.

As part of the visit, Goodyear offered rides to select guests, including media. Another group offered the chance to ride the airship Wednesday morning, departing from Peachtree DeKalb Airport, including hall of famers living in the area.

“It was just the chance of a lifetime, and I’m so glad that I did it,” said one such person, Georgia Tech legend Randy Rhino.

The 14-passenger gondola faintly smells like a commercial airliner. Passengers are required to buckle in before liftoff, although the crew (consisting of two pilots) doesn’t perform an elaborate demonstration of how the seat belts work. The passenger seats, their blue headrests stitched with the familiar Goodyear logo, have movable armrests. In the two-seat cockpit, pilots handle an array of graphic displays, throttles, switches and joysticks.

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The similarities with conventional air travel may end there, starting with the ample legroom.

Filled with helium and captive to the wind, the blimp touched down at PDK with its wheel beneath the gondola, but never came to a full stop. It continued to sway as passengers de-blimped and climbed aboard via a rolling stepladder, the exchange of riders performed in an equal flow – two off, two on – to keep the airship heavy enough to stay close to the ground.

“When the ship was on the ground, and we were loading you guys, it’s still flying,” said senior pilot Ryan Clarke. “(The pilot) is controlling it the whole time.”

The airship (with an internal framework, the newest generation of Goodyear dirigibles are technically not blimps) quickly lifted off, its nose pointed up to the sky. After leveling off, the cabin listed back and forth, the sensation not unlike being on a boat. The ceiling of Wingfoot Two (launched in 2016 and christened by Savannah James, wife of LeBron James, as Goodyear and the couple both hail from Akron, Ohio) is even equipped with handrails to steady passengers walking down the aisle. After his flight, Rhino was thankful that he medicated himself beforehand.

“It was a very gentle rocking back and forth, so I was able to keep it together,” he said. “If I hadn’t have taken the Dramamine, I would have been using the bathroom for ‘emergency only.’”

On this trip, the airship was traveling at about 40 miles per hour as it flew south from the DeKalb airfield, flying directly over Emory University before turning west toward Midtown, circling around near Piedmont Park and then tracing the same path back.

It was a leisurely pace. The blimp can hit 73 miles per hour, though headwinds can be troublesome.

“I’ve had seagulls pass me down there in South Florida,” senior pilot Jay Perdue said.

Particularly with the skies clear, the gondola’s 360-degree views were stunning. As the blimp whirred toward Midtown, Kennesaw Mountain was visible to the west and Stone Mountain in the east, lumps on the horizon separated by about 25 miles. Rhino said that his pilot informed him that the blimp’s visual scope was such that it was once used to take part in search operations after hurricanes.

“The view, it is amazing what you could see,” Rhino said.

Perdue, who dreamed of becoming a pilot of the blimp from the time he was 10 and was captivated by the sight of the world-famous dirigible flying above his schoolyard at Jensen Beach (Fla.) Elementary School, said his most memorable voyage was flying through mountain passes and the California desert.

“The mountains are on both sides of you, shooting through the valley,” he said. “That’s breathtaking.”

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The favored vista of assistant chief pilot James Kosmos: “I like flying over the water, seeing the sharks, the turtles, the whales.”

Wednesday, the blimp floated along about 1,000 feet above the earth, ideal elevation for it to be seen from the ground.

“We’re the biggest billboard out there,” Clarke said.

Goodyear invests considerably in its three blimps, based in Suffield, Ohio, Carson, Calif., and Pompano Beach. When it travels to games, the blimp requires a crew of 22 people and a fleet of ground-support trucks. The tire company is not compensated by television networks for its airborne coverage, but draws its return on investment through the multiple references it receives throughout broadcasts, not to mention the eyeballs at the events. It is a literal marketing vehicle.

Weather permitting, the airship will return to Atlanta for the Dec. 28 Peach Bowl between LSU and Oklahoma at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the intention of being much more than a blimp on the radar.