AKRON — The 33-acre grassy airfield in Carson, Calif., doesn't appear much bigger than a postage stamp when pilot Jon Conrad begins steering the 12,840-pound Goodyear blimp in for a landing.
"It looks a little different from this vantage point, doesn't it?" he said with a chuckle. "That doesn't seem like much room when you're landing an aircraft that's comparable to a Boeing 747."
The tight squeeze will get a little tighter in the coming years with the announcement in early May that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. will once again replace its helium-filled fleet of three silver, blue, and gold blimps with bigger, faster ones.
The Akron company said it would work with German manufacturer ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik to build three airships costing about $21 million each. Beginning in 2014, Goodyear will begin to swap out the three blimps, now based in Akron, Pompano Beach, Fla., and Carson, Calif.
The blimps have been a regular sight above southern California since before World War II, when the U.S. Navy used them to keep an eye on the Pacific coast in case of an attack. "Some people would say that it isn't a complete Rose Bowl event without the Goodyear blimp," Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said.
But the new airships will be even more eye-catching.
At 246 feet, the replacements are 54 feet longer and can hit a top speed of 73 mph — compared with the current airships' 54 mph. They will have three propeller engines attached above the gondola, unlike the two noisy engines that currently flank the rear of the gondola.
Because they will have rigid skeletons, in this case made of aluminum and carbon fiber, they technically will be zeppelins, not blimps.
But they still will be called Goodyear blimps. Each will carry 12 passengers — six more than today's — and include state-of-the art avionics and flight control systems.
They're typically replaced every 10 to 15 years. Mr. Conrad, 41, a onetime helicopter crop duster from Nebraska who is now Goodyear's head pilot at the Carson, Calif., airfield, said, "I'll enjoy showing it off."
Showing off the airship is the whole point.
Take, for example, the Super Bowl. Goodyear packs in a television cameraman and provides aerial shots — as long as ground crews snap some footage of the blimp during the game.
While companies shell out as much as $3 million for a 30-second commercial, Goodyear gets what amounts to a handful of 10-second spots just by providing airborne footage, said Kelly O'Keefe, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The company wouldn't say how much it benefits from the enterprise but said that the dollar value of the broadcast attention it gets over the course of year far outweighs the costs of operations. Goodyear said the advertising value is in the "millions of dollars."
"They get exposure at every highly trafficked public event," Mr. O'Keefe said. "That's a lot of value from an advertising perspective."
Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and Fujifilm Holdings Corp. are among companies that have put their names on the side of blimps, but Goodyear blimps are iconic.
"It's gotten to the point that if you just saw a silhouette of a blimp in the sky, you'd assume it belonged to Goodyear," Mr. O'Keefe said.
The blimp in Carson, dubbed Spirit of America, flies about four tours for passengers every day. The 45-minute late-afternoon tours are not available to the public; they're invitation-only and free of charge to friends and customers of the company as well as charity auctions.
"If you want a nice view of what's below, this is the way to go," said Victor Gongora, a 45-year-old tire dealer from Santa Clarita, Calif. "A plane goes too fast. It's hard to see where you're at when you're traveling that fast."
Although some neighbors find it noisy at times, the blimp is a popular sight, including to motorists passing by the airfield.
The company got into the blimp business in 1910. During World War II, the U.S. Navy maintained a fleet of more than 150 blimps built by Goodyear. Some were even outfitted with 50-caliber machine guns.
Goodyear and ZLT Zeppelin teams will build the new airships at Goodyear facilities near Akron. The two companies previously built massive airships to carry hundreds of people from continent to continent, starting in 1924. The early zeppelins were four times longer than the current blimps.
But the deal between the two companies took a hit after the Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937 in front of news cameras while mooring at Lakehurst, N.J., deflating the chances for lighter-than-air ships to become a popular mode of travel. Goodyear blimps are filled with nonflammable helium, not hydrogen like the Hindenburg.