Terror scare bumps blimp's flight plans

Author: Walton R. Collins '51

At 4 in the afternoon of Friday, October 19, Jim Maloney sits at the controls of the Goodyear blimp, half a mile above and just south of Notre Dame Stadium.

Behind him in the cramped cab, Rich Morckl maneuvers the ship’s camera in its gyroscopic housing, holding the image rock-steady as the blimp lurches in a gust of wind. The camera is powerful enough to focus clearly on a player’s shoelaces, but Morckl is after bigger vistas today: Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome, colorful mid-October foliage, long views of campus. The footage will make glamour shots for use during tomorrow’s nationally telecast Notre Dame-USC football game. Both blimp and crew will be back above campus tomorrow, but they won’t be able to get this close to the stadium.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the FAA temporarily changed the rules governing aircraft in the vicinity of packed sports arenas. During the game, the airship will be allowed no closer to the stadium than three nautical miles. Violate that rule, Maloney quips, “and we’ll have two F-16s escorting us.”

The blimp actually seems a more likely target of terrorists than a potential tool. Measuring 192 feet long by 55 feet wide by 60 feet tall, the airship normally glides over the countryside at a serene 20 to 25 miles an hour. Maloney can crank up the ship’s twin engines and go up to 50 mph on a very still day.

The controls are simple — a large vertical wheel at the pilot’s right points the ship up or down, and foot pedals control rudders that turn it left or right. The ship carries enough fuel for 24 hours of flight.

Maloney is a second-generation Goodyear pilot who says he set his sights on this career the day his father took him for a ride when he was a child. “Goodyear kept raising the standards on me,” he says with a laugh. “First they wanted a college degree, so I got one in electrical engineering. By that time they wanted a master’s degree, then a Ph.D. I got those, and then they wanted an airplane pilot’s license.” After Maloney earned a commercial pilot’s license, Goodyear finally relented and signed him on to fly blimps.

By 5 o’clock the sun is getting low on the far side of Lake Michigan, which is clearly visible from this height, as is Chicago’s Sears Tower. The Spirit of Goodyear, aka Airship GZ20 (GZ stands for Goodyear Zeppelin), has floated above the campus for close to two hours. Maloney alerts South Bend air control that he’s leaving local air space and heading for the Elkhart airport, where the blimp is berthed when it’s doing Notre Dame coverage.

Walton R. Collins is editor emeritus of Notre Dame Magazine.