If you see the Goodyear Blimp flying in the sky, you can be sure something important is happening below it. But what goes into keeping the airship flying safely above the crowds?
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company invited Fleet Maintenance to the Goodyear Airship Operations where I climbed inside a blimp and learned more about their maintenance program from Jim Crone, who manages their airship maintenance.
The following Q&A from our visit with Crone has been edited for clarity:
What does it take to maintain a fleet of airships?
Crone: During phase one inspection, it's a condition inspection. We're looking for any kind of abnormal issues; we may see some chafing, we look for corrosion, we inspect the condition of the fabric, we look for pinholes, and any kind of abrasions; so we can repair that. Each airship has a prescribed set of intervals that are approved by the FAA, and we comply with those FAA regulations. So every 100 flight hours, we have to bring in the airship and we have to inspect all the engines, the passenger gondola, the envelope, those type of things. And then we release the airship back to service. Also, each airship has five phase inspections, or heavy maintenance checks, where we bring the airship in. Phase one is when we take the helium out, about a four- to six-week timeframe, where we do a lot of inspecting on the inside; the fuel systems, the structure, the envelope, ballonets, all that type of work. And then we have four more phase inspections throughout the year; one for each engine and one for the passenger gondola. We have a pretty extensive maintenance program that allows us to stay in compliance with the FAA and also allows us to keep the airship safe and in air-worthy condition.
When you bring the blimps in for maintenance, they're full of helium. But obviously to work on them, crews need oxygen in the envelope. Explain that process.
Crone: That process takes about three days. We bring in the airship, and once we jack it up or suspended from the ceiling, then we attach hoses. We have big gray bags, we call them nurse bags, and we transfer the helium into the gray bags. At the same time, we bring air into the bottom of the airship. As we fill it with air, the helium is pushed out into these gray bags, and then we take the helium, clean it and compress it and put it back into a tube trailer for later use when we re-inflate the airship down the road. We would have about six or seven of them fully inflated. They stand about 60 feet tall and are about 35-40 feet around. They hold about 800 cubic meters of helium.
Two blimps can fit inside the hangar at that same time. What does it take to get them in and secured?
Crone: To have two airships in the hangar, it's garage parking 101. We have experts that bring in the airships and park the airships in there and make this happen for us. It's a coordinated event, we have a big truck that holds the nose of the airship, and we have two 50,000-pound tugs that hold the back of the airship. Then we bring the airship in, we turn it and bring the tail in first. We drive the airship into the hangar and get it to the back, secure with ropes, and we disconnect the equipment from the airship. Then we go on top of the boom lift, similar to how someone would jack up a big truck. The same thing here, we raise the airship and we use a winching system to raise up the airship to get it off the ground. And that allows us to do our maintenance on the airship.
Are there any similarities between work that technicians do on large trucks versus the work crews do here at the Goodyear Airship Operations?
Crone: I think there are a lot of similarities. You look at some of our equipment here, our big trucks, we have PLC circuits, we have hydraulics, we have remote control systems. So a lot of our vehicles here are very complex. It's very similar to the airship we have; a fly-by-wire system, we have an integrated flight control system, we have a glass cockpit. There are similarities in how we do our work. We use a lot of the same type of equipment, multimeters, specialized tooling, hydraulic testing equipment, similar to what we use on our big trucks. It's just that our equipment sometimes is not as big as what they need on big trucks, it's a little bit smaller because we don't have the big engines and that type of equipment.
What type of specialized tools do you use?
Crone: We have to carry specialized tools because it's confined space. We have to carry radios and oxygen sensors. We carry a specialized knife in case we ever have to get out of the envelope in a hurry. We can do that. Not that that's going to happen. But that's all part of the safety protocol that we have when we go inside. So when we're inside the ballonets and we're working, and we're doing the inspection work, sometimes the ballonet fabric can shift or move. We don't want somebody to become engulfed in fabric. It's really a safety requirement. To this date, nobody's ever had to use one.
Much like a diesel mechanic accidentally leaving a wrench in the engine, you wouldn't want an airship mechanic leaving tools in the blimp. How do you prevent that from happening?
Crone: It's very important, just like the diesel mechanics. We don't want to leave our tools laying around either. So we have an extensive tool program. All of our tools are monitored. All of our toolboxes are shadowed, and everything is inventoried on a daily basis. We inventory in the morning and in the evening. So we know where our tools are at. And if there's a tool missing, we stop until we find that tool.
How does someone become airship technician?
Crone: It's such a unique job and it's so specialized. And the great thing about this job is it's a huge team effort. Everybody here has a role to play and everybody plays their role so well and we do this together. We work together so well. So being an aircraft mechanic you must have an FAA certificate called an Airframe and Powerplant certificate. Basically once you have that, and if we bring you in and hire you, we teach you how to work on the airship because it is so unique. There's not a whole lot of airships out there. So most guys come here and we have to teach them how to work on the airship.