Uh, it’s not a car! It’s still TopGear.com, right?
Don’t adjust your sets, folks. It’s indeed still TopGear.com and you’re right, the gear you see in front of you has far fewer wheels than the things we usually spend our time with.
But when Goodyear asked us if we wanted to fly an airship over the world’s most famous endurance race, we weren’t going to say “no”, were we?
Fair point! Hmm, how are you… going?
You’ve never wondered about the intricacies of an airship before, have you? The Goodyear Blimp is powered by a trio of four-cylinder engines, each developing 200 hp: one on each side, another in the rear. Each has its own fuel tank, and it will take up to 825 kg of Avgas, the same as you will find in any aircraft with an internal combustion engine.
The side motors can be rotated to give you lift during takeoff and forward thrust during flight, while a pair of propellers at the rear can push the airship up or down. low, or spin it in place like a helicopter.
That’s not what keeps the airship in the air. With a length of 75 m, a width of 19.5 m and a height of 17.4 m, the envelope (this is the technical term for the trephine of the balloon) has a volume of 8,425 m of cubic meters. Or to borrow a metaphor, more than three Olympic swimming pools. There’s a semi-rigid internal skeleton made of aluminum and carbon fiber trusses, but it’s mostly helium under pressure.
There is also a large water tank under the cabin (called the nacelle) for pilots to dispose of ballast when needed, and an air bag at each end of the envelope which gives precise control of the not by helping to move the helium around.
It’s more complicated than I expected.
Amazing isn’t it? Before boarding, we had imagined a hot air balloon in the shape of a suppository with fans attached to the sides, but no. The Goodyear Blimp is a complex machine, and the cockpit is as dense with screens and buttons as you’d expect in any commercial jet.
All of the controls are modern, wired aviation tools, which is kind of reassuring and yet unnerving at the same time. Weird.
In any case, the airship does not quite reach the speeds of Boeing or Airbus. Top speed is a dizzying 77 mph, and while it can handle almost 10,000 feet in altitude, most flights stick to around 1,000 feet. Makes it easier to see the mahoosive brand logo from below.
Cool. How are things on board?
A real novelty, in short: half private jet, half ski lift. Passengers line up in pairs on the ground as the airship comes in to land, with the ground crew holding a portable windsock to give a measure of the direction of the wind. There is a one-time policy when you board so the weight doesn’t fluctuate too much while the airship hovers above the ground and 14 passengers can sit inside. Plus the two pilots, of course.
There are life jackets under all seats, but the safety briefing takes place in advance, so no need for the “your exits are here and here” malarkey once you’re comfortable. No snack cart either.
Seat belts are fastened as the airship climbs to its target altitude, but it only takes a few moments and after that you are free to move around in the gondola. And because you’re still relatively low to the ground, the cabin doesn’t need to be pressurized, so you can enjoy panoramic views through a choice of open windows. The motors are pretty quiet too. All very serene.
How is the handling? I mean, how’s the turbulence?
There are not any. Never go fast enough for that. And unlike a normal plane, you’re not subject to any noticeable g-forces either, with a limited amount of pitch and roll the only giveaways when you’re turning.
Sweet. Good view I guess?
Great view. Our flight – the last of the day – took off shortly after 8 p.m., with the sun low on the horizon and the sky totally clear. At this point in the evening the airship was not allowed to cross the Circuit de la Sarthe, but even so we had a great view of the cars weaving their way through the sequence of corners beyond the *cough* Dunlop *cough* chicane, and plow the strait of Mulsanne.
Let’s also not forget that the circuit is over eight miles long, and walking between all the different viewpoints takes quite a long time. So being able to track cars with the naked eye for more than a handful of seconds at a time is pretty unique.
Did you stay up there long?
About 25 minutes in total, although the Goodyear Airship can stay aloft for longer. Much longer in fact: around 22 hours, although it goes without saying that no pilot in the world is allowed to fly that long without rest. But it’s good to know that the airship will survive its meaty cargo. And that probably explains why there are toilets on board.
Are there toilets? !
Oh yes. Nothing extravagant of course, just a small cabin with a toilet and sink. And a window, so you can keep enjoying the show even when you spend a penny.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to use it. We also didn’t ask what would happen to the, uh, waste once deposited. But given the care with which the airship must manage the ballast, we don’t think it gets tossed overboard. You are safe, inhabitants of the earth.
Tell me about the landing.
As mentioned, pilots depend on a small crew of ground personnel to facilitate landing, with the airship always making its final approach directly into the wind. When the day is done, the nose of the airship is attached to a crane and someone is given the unenviable task of sleeping in it overnight. Because how screwed would you be if it somehow came off?
Very! How much does it cost?
Spacer! Spacer! No, the airship does not drop, you may not expect the size of the price. For your own Goodyear Blimp, you’re looking at a figure in excess of €20m, or around £17.2m at current exchange rates.
And that’s before you factor in the cost of crew, maintenance, transportation, fuel, and a lot of helium. A small part escapes daily. You will also need a large field to keep it. A helipad will not suffice, unfortunately.
Still, if you’re endowed with land and money, the airship is a great way to spend an evening. Less to move. As TG conclusively proved many, many years ago.