Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 30, 2013

Not quite a UFO: Blimp’s pass over Mercer piques community interest

An otherwise slow news day picked up when we heard a blimp might be flying over Mercer County. It reminded me of the moment years ago when I thought I had finally seen a UFO.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, UFOs were enjoying popularity. “Star Trek” had premiered and the debate about whether there was other intelligent life in the universe had some new energy. I religiously watched science fiction movies whenever I wrested control of the television from my sister, Karen, and thought they were the greatest thing.

Naturally, I desperately wanted to see a UFO. One afternoon I looked up and saw a silver disc gloriously lit by the setting sun. Then reality reared its ugly head and I realized my flying saucer was a jet taking off from the airport.

Not long afterwards, I was playing with other neighborhood kids when I suddenly noticed a huge sphere floating over the mountains on the other side of the Kanawha Valley. I thought the great moment had finally arrived. There was my UFO.

Well, it wasn’t a UFO. It gradually turned and became a long silver oval with the name Goodyear stenciled across its flanks. My Dad informed me that my UFO was the Goodyear Blimp.

I had never seen a blimp, so I quickly got over my disappointment. The blimp flew majestically around the valley for a couple of hours. Neighbors came out to see it and soon an impromptu block party was going on.

The blimp flew off, but then it gradually returned to my hometown of South Charleston. It flew as low as a couple of hundred feet, and I could see details such as the gondola and the propellers spinning on the engines. I still remember the engines’ drone as the blimp flew overhead.

Blimps remain enough of a novelty now to attract attention when they arrive over a community. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph had calls about it; that’s enough to tell you the public is interested. People commented about it on our Facebook page. It was seen everywhere from Fort Chiswell, Va., all the way to Beaver. Naturally, they were speculating about where the blimp had originated and where it was heading. One reader noted it had been at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. I know we often see televised shots from blimps during sporting events, so that makes sense.

This interest is why blimps make such great promotional billboards for companies like Goodyear. The novelty of seeing a blimp immediately attracts attention, so you can’t help but look up and read the writing along its flanks. I think advertisers realized this years ago when they saw blimps in the skies and realized the airships were a new and mobile space for their promotions.

This interest started, naturally enough, when blimps and dirigibles, the airships with metal skeletons, started appearing in the skies in the early 20th century. The intrepid people who flew them were heroes ranking alongside today’s Indiana Jones. Airships provided the means to explore the Arctic and other lands of adventure, and explore them in style.

I read once there was a time when people were reporting mysterious airships instead of UFOs. Years before the term “flying saucer” was coined, there were reports of blimps over America’s skies. Witnesses would even claim the airships would land and the pilots would speak with them. Some lucky witnesses got to go for a ride. The accounts sound a lot like the UFO stories of today.

If it hadn’t been for the crash of the Hindenburg back in the 1930s, there is a good chance we would have regular airship service today. Those classic pictures and movie footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flames ended the desire to fly aboard airships.

Those airships were flying ocean liners. They could take passengers over the Atlantic Ocean in comfort, and days sooner than any ocean liner could manage. Audiences got a look at one in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Jones threw a Nazi off the airship for failing to have a ticket.

A big future was envisioned for airships. There were even plans to have them moor at the Empire State Building in New York City, but those plans never came to fruition. When jet airliners arrived and showed they could whisk passengers overseas in a few hours, the interest in airship travel died down.

I can’t help but wonder if blimps could make a comeback. They’re safer now thanks to the helium giving them lift. The Hindenburg used explosive hydrogen ready to burn if even one small spark reached it.

Flying across the country aboard a passenger blimp could be fun. It would be great for sightseeing, and the blimp would be an attraction all by itself. I’m sure even a large blimp could use small airports because they do not need long airstrips to take off or land. I understand they are also very fuel efficient; that’s a plus in this age of high fuel prices.

I didn’t get to see the blimp passing over Mercer County, but just the thought of it brought back childhood memories and ideas about what might have been. I hope the blimp returns some day so I can get a better look at it. Maybe we can find a schedule online. A low pass would be a treat for local school children who have never seen a majestic blimp flying overhead. Maybe one will be inspired enough to bring airships back to the skies.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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