OXFORD, Georgia — I’m sitting in a gigantic Mack truck. Fifty feet away, a huge blimp nearly as long as a football field hovers in front of me, filling up the windshield.
This ain’t no regular truck. It’s about to latch onto Goodyear’s nearly 20,000-pound flying airship.
Yeah. I wanna see how that works. This is going to be fun.
The Goodyear Blimp is an American icon. The company estimates that each year, about 60 million Americans get a firsthand look at one of its blimps at or en route to sporting events or parades. Now, Goodyear’s newest zeppelin, Wingfoot One, is making a stop in Georgia, en route to its new home base in Pompano Beach, Florida.
At the wheel on my left is Ron Heaps, airship cowboy. Ron and his fellow crewmen have to lasso this yellow, blue and grey bucking bronco as it looms in front of us in the Georgia breeze.
He keeps his eyes on the aircraft and a man standing in front of our truck. That’s assistant crew chief Jorge Reyes-Moreira, who’s directing Ron, via radio.
This monster truck weighs 64,000 pounds — more than three times the weight of the Zeppelin. With all that weight, more ballast isn’t necessary.
Ron’s “lasso” is a remote-control steel mast that’s anchored behind us, in the back of this truck. On top of this mast: an 880-pound mast head where this blimp aims to connect.
Covington Municipal Airport has prepared great weather for landing today: Bright blue sky, scattered clouds, with winds at 4 mph.
Through the truck’s windshield, I can see into the blimp’s gondola, where pilot Michael Dougherty adjusts the direction of the airship’s propeller engines. A blimp always wants to float up, so Dougherty uses the propellers to push the aircraft down to the ground — level with the truck’s towering orange and white-striped mast.
To make sure the truck is as stable as possible, it has four built-in “outriggers” — metal arms with wheels — which extend outward from both sides of the truck.
These arms are designed to keep the truck upright — especially in windy conditions. Basically, this truck can hold on to the zeppelin in winds as strong as 90 mph.
Now, before we consummate the ultimate hookup, lemme tell ya a little about this truck.
It’s one of a kind.
You’ve heard of a 4-by-4. This bad boy is an 8-by-8. It’s an 8-wheeled 2014 Mack Granite. Engineered Chassis Systems custom-built the body.
A few other features:
• It’s got a six-speed automatic transmission.
• It’s got all-wheel drive, also custom from Engineered Chassis Systems, so all eight wheels are driven by the truck’s 455-horsepower, diesel engine.
• The two axles in the front are both steerable.
• The truck has a tire-pressure-control system which lets a little air out of the tires when the truck is on soft ground. When the tires have less air, they’re softer; they can grab more dirt and get more traction on shaky ground.
• Operators raise and lower the truck’s mast automatically from a control box located on the side of the vehicle.
And some history for you: Goodyear’s previous generation of blimps — the GZ-20As — were often tied to masts that weren’t on trucks. They were held secure by 24 cables staked into the ground. The company currently operates two blimps — this new zeppelin — and its last GZ-20A, named Spirit of Innovation. Spirit of Innovation — based in Carson, California — is scheduled to retire in 2017 when it’s replaced by a new zeppelin like Wingfoot One.
By the way, the zeppelins aren’t actually “blimps,” you know. If you call them blimps, experts tend to get annoyed. They’ll correct you and tell you it’s a semi-rigid dirigible — because it has an internal skeleton. Goodyear’s older airship has no skeleton — making it, by definition, an actual blimp. Guess what, Goodyear doesn’t care. They like the word, so they’re calling it a blimp.
So, back to the hookup:
The ground crew connects a cable to the truck’s mast and the airship’s nose. Using a portable remote, a crewman commands the mast to start reeling in the cable… pulling the blimp closer and closer to the truck.
A pointy object on the nose of the blimp inserts itself into the mast head.
Suddenly I can feel this 64,000-pound truck shudder as it adjusts to the floating whale it just grabbed onto.
Next, it’s time for a little afternoon dance.
A truck and a zeppelin: Two XXL dance partners trying to move in concert with each other. Thirty-two tons of Mack truck versus 300,000 cubic feet of helium that wants to be up there, not down here.
Ron’s at the wheel and Jerry’s in the cockpit.
When Ron turns the wheel and slowly moves the truck, I can feel the tug of the giant airship attached to our mast. Ron and Jerry slowly push the airship to an overnight parking spot in the grass, just off the airport runway. You might call it the Wingfoot Two-Step.
In a few minutes, the truck is lined up with a set of rubber mats directly in front of us.
Jorge gets on the radio to direct Ron, saying, “Lock your left wheel with this set of mats, right here in front.”
Ron pulls onto the mats; puts it in park; shuts off the ignition; turns to me and jokes with a stone-straight face: “That’s the first time I’ve ever done that.”
“Good job,” Jorge says.
Docking complete. Mission accomplished. No other lines from the airship need to be tied to the ground. The mast truck does all the holding.
The pilots exit through a door near the rear of the gondola, but there’s always someone with the airship, 24/7.
This big, beautiful bag of gas is safely tucked in for the night.