AKRON, Ohio -- Up in the air! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a blimp! But not necessarily the Goodyear blimp.
The first name in airships - and for many years the only name - has gotten some serious competition.
The blimp business is booming, with about a dozen corporate dirigibles flying in the United States, compared to just one Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. ship in 1962.
Today, it's not unusual for four blimps to appear at a major sporting event, such as the Super Bowl. Three were in Cleveland during the week of the baseball All-Star game.
While Goodyear officials say the competition isn't a direct threat to the company's tire business - Dunlop hasn't yet launched a blimp - there is a sense of rivalry.
A cartoon depicting a deflated MetLife blimp and a photo of the Bud One Airship with a dart sticking in it decorate the walls in the office at the base for the Spirit of Akron, Goodyear's 205-foot-long flagship.
As Goodyear has long known, blimps' cruising speed of 35 mph and ability to stay aloft for long periods make them ideal for shooting aerial footage of outdoor sporting events.
When Goodyear covers an event, the company brings its own camera crew and equipment. But a decision for TV broadcasting rights that once went to Goodyear by default is now in the hands of the networks. In the past, the network broadcasting the game used some footage taken from the airship in exchange for incorporating some shots of the blimp into the show. Now, because of the competition, the networks sometimes demand the blimp's sponsor also buy ads for the broadcast.
The competition tweaked Goodyear into upgrading its own television equipment and electric light show for night flights, said Mickey Whittman, manager of Goodyear's global airship program. But because Goodyear is so connected with airships in the public's mind, it has also benefited from the presence of more blimps.
"People see a blimp and they think it's a Goodyear," he said.
Goodyear's connection with dirigibles dates back more than 70 years. It built the first one, the Pilgrim, in 1925 and quickly started using it as a public relations tool. Among its stunts, the airship landed on the roof of a downtown Akron department store to deliver tires and flew to the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.
In all, Goodyear has built more than 300 airships, many for U.S. Navy surveillance missions, although the last Navy blimp was decommissioned in 1962 - leaving Goodyear alone in the skies for a time.
In the 1980s, a few other companies, such as Metropolitan Life Insurance, joined the blimp bandwagon by purchasing or leasing airships, and the number has continued to rise.
"Someone once said that blimps are only good for making people smile and dogs bark," said Michael Bolton, marketing manager for the Lightship Group, which leases blimps to corporations. "Well, if it makes people smile I think from a marketing sense you're halfway to doing your job."
Today, there are 53 blimps licensed to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration, but that includes all types of dirigibles, many of which are small and personally owned.
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