AKRON — It resembled a giant erector set, and the men working on it looked as happy as children with a new toy at Christmas.
But this was serious business, as the men at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s Wingfoot Lake hangar were literally building Goodyear’s airship future: the first of three larger, faster airships that will replace the company's iconic blimp fleet.
“We are just at the dawn,” of a new airship era, Nancy Ray, Goodyear’s director of global airship operations, said on a recent morning at the hangar.
Behind her, a crew of German and American workers assembled a portion of the towering aluminum and carbon-fiber internal frame of the airship that will be 246 feet long — 50 feet longer than a Goodyear blimp.
“I’ve been in aviation my whole life and to have an opportunity to be a part of this has been amazing,” said Tom Bradley, Goodyear airship mechanic.
“We high-fived each other” when work began March 10, Mr. Bradley said, motioning toward mechanic Markus Draeger of German airship company ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmBH & Co.
Nearly two years ago, Goodyear said it planned to replace its three-blimp U.S. fleet with the bigger semi-rigid airships — with an internal frame — to be jointly built by Goodyear and the German ZLT Zeppelin company.
Last September, the German-made parts began arriving at the Wingfoot Lake hangar in the Akron suburb of Suffield Township.
The internal frame is one of the significant features that will separate the new aircraft from Goodyear’s current fleet.
While purists will point out that blimps do not have internal frames, Goodyear officials plan to still call the semirigid airships “Goodyear blimps.”
Ms. Ray said the new airship will be flying in 2014, carrying Goodyear’s blue-and-gold logo over sports and other events. It will replace the Spirit of Goodyear.
The plan is to have the second new-generation airship flying in 2016 and the third in 2018. Each of the modern Zeppelin craft will be built at Wingfoot Lake. Each will cost about $21 million, Goodyear has said.
The new airships, in addition to being longer, will be slightly shorter in height.
“It’s going to look long and skinny as compared to the kind of chubby one we have today,” Ms. Ray said.
The new crafts will be powered by three 200-horsepower prop-engines.
Two of the propellers pull the airship and one pushes at the tail; the current blimps are pushed by two engines mounted off the cabin, or gondola.
The propellers can be tilted up and down, or vectored, which allows the airship to take off and land in smaller spaces.
“We’re going to get a lot more speed, we’re going to be a lot more efficient,” Ms. Ray said, noting the lightweight materials that are used to construct the frame.
Ms. Ray said the cruising speed of current blimps is about 30 miles per hour, and the cruising speed of the new airship will be about 50 to 55 miles per hour.
The blimp also will be quieter, and its gondola will hold 12 people as compared with the current seven.
Goodyear has built and operated more than 300 lighter-than-air vehicles since 1917, including two large rigid airships, the USS Macon and the USS Akron, built for the Navy in the 1930s.