Looking for an innovative way to promote his still-young company, Goodyear Chairman Paul W. Litchfield looked to the skies. Hydrogen-filled airships ruled the trans-Atlantic and continental skies, fueling the growth of air travel around the globe. Why can’t Goodyear, Litchfield imagined, build airships and jump on the air travel bandwagon?
On June 3, 1925, Goodyear’s first airship christened “Pilgrim” ®“ took to the skies. One can only wonder what the children and adults around the Akron area thought as that aerial yacht lumbered and hummed through the clouds on its maiden flight. That same year, and with equally little fanfare, another wonder was born in Akron.
Even in the miserable economic times of 1931, some 30,000 Akronites gathered at Goodyear’s gigantic airdock to witness the launch of the USS Akron. By all accounts, it was one of the city’s biggest events. The crowd forgot their troubles for a few hours as they jostled for a view of the silver-clad marvel. Street vendors selling ice creams, drinks and airship-shaped balloons.
Somewhere in the masses was a 5-year-old boy. His day, filled with airships and ice cream, was complete until his cherished airship-shaped balloon flew into Uncle Charlie’s cigar, shattering the little boy. Despite the mini-air disaster, the boy embarked on a lifetime dream of someday flying in that magnificent ship.
A decade later, airship travel had died with the Hindenberg and Goodyear had moved into helium-filled blimps that became instrumental in America’s war effort. Hundreds of Goodyear-built blimps patrolled the oceans, escorting Navy convoys and providing valuable reconnaissance.
His head filled with exciting tales of spectacular aviation feats, the growing teenager followed the exploits of the Wingfoot airforce.
The war’s end brought economic prosperity, and the emergence of the plane as the preferred method of air travel. Airlines left the concept of blimps with little purpose.
For 13 long years the blimp fleet struggled, losing interest and members of its fleet. By 1958, Goodyear management was ready to deflate the company’s remaining blimp. Only the unique vision of Bob Lane, who saw the blimp’s PR possibilities, saved Goodyear’s only remaining blimp the Mayflower ®“ preserving its place in Americana, and keeping a young man’s dream afloat.
By 1986, after covering countless major sporting events, after dozens of disaster relief missions for the Red Cross, the Goodyear blimp had secured its position as one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. The Akron airdock was once again opened to the public, this time as host of the year’s United Way campaign kickoff. Six decades after its initial opening, the airdock crowd had swelled to an unprecedented 120,000 strong.
In this excited crowd, a 61-year-old man stood in awe, taking in the size and elegance of the then-new Spirit of Akron. Unlike the unfortunate 5-year-old boy, this fellow’s day ended brightly as he and his son stood imagining how great it would be to ride among the clouds in this magnificent wonder.
Time brings us to the present. Goodyear’s blimp fleet is seven strong, and maintains a jam-packed global schedule of special appearances covering the Olympics, soccer championships, football games and more. Litchfield’s dream and Lane’s vision successfully intertwined into a global symbol that still fills little boy dreams.
And yet, even with the blimps’ busy schedules, on June 3 of this year, Goodyear’s Stars & Stripes found time to keep a long overdue date. On that very day, exactly 75 years after Goodyear’s Pilgrim launched generations of little boy dreams, it delivered a special present to the above mentioned wonder.
Bob Bissler Sr. may well be one of the blimp’s biggest fans. Through his 75 years Bob Sr. has followed the exploits of the Goodyear airships.
And all the while, he kept alive his dream of one day taking to the air in his beloved blimp. A dream that started the day his uncle’s lit cigar tried to burst his bubble.
Bob Sr., accompanied by his family, took to the skies aboard Stars & Stripes. Closing a circle that started 75 years earlier. And proving that even mighty corporate icons can take time to make a little boy’s dream come true.