By Jim Mackinnon| Beacon Journal business writer
Another piece of Goodyear’s airship history is headed to the Smithsonian.
A six-person gondola first attached to a Goodyear blimp in 1934 and finally retired in 1986 trucked out Tuesday morning on the back of a big flatbed from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s Wingfoot airship base in Portage County. Destination: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The donated gondola will be placed near another historic Goodyear airship artifact, a lifeboat that is the sole remaining piece from the ill-fated 1911 Akron airship that the tire maker gave to the museum last year. (The museum is also home to the gondola of the Goodyear blimp Pilgrim.)
This particular gondola, also called a control car and given the designation C-49, played a role in pop culture from 1975 to 1986 when it was part of the Goodyear airship Columbia based in California. Actor Richard Chamberlain, impersonator Rich Little and actress and Laugh-In television comedy show regular Jo Anne Worley flew in the Columbia. The Columbia had a starring role in the 1977 thriller Black Sunday and also was used for — either to film aerial scenes or appeared in — Disney’s Flight of the Navigator and Condorman and Oh, God! Book II, among other movies. The blimp provided aerial coverage for four Super Bowls and two World Series, Rose Bowl games and parades and the 1984 summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
But the C-49 gondola is much more than a pop culture item, said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the museum.
It started out in 1934 on the Goodyear blimp Enterprise, was pressed into Naval service in 1942 for World War II and then sold back to Goodyear in 1946. Goodyear kept the gondola as a spare and rebuilt it in 1969.
“It covers a big chunk of Goodyear airship history,” Crouch said. “I think people are just plain fascinated by airships.”
And most of the American public is familiar with the iconic Goodyear blimps, he said. “They played an important role in aeronautical history,” Crouch said. Blimps have been used for sporting events and for military use, he said.
“Not a single ship was lost in convoys protected by blimps (in World War II),” Crouch said.
“The C-49 has a rich history within the Goodyear blimp fleet and with the U.S. Navy,” Nancy Jandrokovic, Goodyear’s director of global airship operations, said in a statement.
The C-49 gondola has been sitting unrestored at the Wingfoot Lake hangar since being retired. The gondola soon will be put in an area of the museum where it will be visible to the public, Crouch said. It might be at least a couple more years before the Smithsonian fully restores the gondola to how it looked at the end of its service in 1986, he said.
Goodyear recycled and upgraded its gondolas over the decades, spokesman Edward Ogden said.
“They were very easy to repair and to refurbish,” he said.
A blimp envelope — the big cigar-shaped bag that holds the helium — typically lasts 10 to 12 years. Gondolas can last much longer, Ogden said.
While the C-49 closely resembles the gondolas that are now part of Goodyear’s current three-blimp U.S. fleet, the interiors and technology are very different, Ogden said. The gondolas now in use have the latest materials and electronics, he said.
“I hope they all find a good home,” said Tim Hopkins, chief mechanic and one of the Wingfoot hangar crew overseeing the placing of the C-49 on the flatbed truck. He has worked on numerous blimps in his career at Goodyear, including being part of the crew that built Goodyear’s newest blimp, the Florida-based Spirit of Innovation that launched in early 2006.
Meanwhile, Goodyear is preparing to start building the next generation of airships at the Wingfoot Lake hangar, 246-foot-long semi-rigid Zeppelins that are faster and more modern than the current generation of U.S.-based, 192-foot-long Goodyear blimps.
The first Goodyear Zeppelin is scheduled to be built in 2013 and will replace the Spirit of Goodyear that is based at the Suffield Township site and is a familiar sight in Northeast Ohio skies. Goodyear is partnering with Germany-based ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik to build the new airships at a cost of $21 million apiece.
Parts of the first Goodyear Zeppelin are already arriving at the hangar from Germany, a spokesman said.