Majestic Airships Take Back an Honored Place in the Skies : Comeback: Blimps are now doing a booming business as airborne advertisers, although their more important functions have gone by the wayside.

THE ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

They once served as warship escorts and surveillance craft. Now, these magnificent aircraft mostly promote pizza, tires and life insurance.

Blimps and their ancestor airships have traveled quite a distance since their creation in the mid-1800s as the first flying machines capable of prolonged, steerable flight.

Through every stage there has been a legion of admirers and advocates, inspired and humbled by the enormousness and gracefulness of the airship and its seeming ability to glide effortlessly and relatively quietly through the sky.

Yet, by the 1960s the blimp was almost extinct, no longer needed to aid in major world battles and with a future still uncharted. Today it is in the midst of a renaissance, fueled by capitalistic pursuits.

Blimps have become floating billboards in the sky, used by some of the world's largest companies--Metropolitan Life, Pizza Hut, Gulf Oil, McDonald's, Fuji--to get an extraordinary bang from their advertising buck.

As predictable as the fans, there is a blimp hovering above every major sporting event, from the Super Bowl to the Kentucky Derby, providing the platform for sophisticated cameras that provide the bird's-eye view television viewers demand.

Said Joe Olma, vice president of U.S. Lighter Than Air of Eugene, Ore., which owns two blimps: "Blimps are one of the few advertising media that people never get tired of."

Blimps also are being used for scientific pursuits, such as tracking whales and exploring weather patterns.

Westinghouse Electronic Systems has a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to build a blimp at least twice the size of those flying today as part of its air defense system.

A German company, which built a fleet of huge airships in the early 1900s known as Zeppelins, is proposing to reinvent the air cruise ship, the best known of which was the Hindenburg. One of the largest airships ever built, the Hindenburg exploded and crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937, killing 35 of the 97 passengers and ending the use of airships for regular passenger services.

"We really feel like this is a relatively new industry," said Scott Bennett, public relations director for Airship International of Orlando, Fla., which owns six of the world's largest blimps.

"The United States market can really handle a number more airships and the rest of the world is virtually untapped."

There are about three times as many blimps in the United States as there were a decade ago. Thirty-three blimps were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration in 1992, the most recent year for which the agency compiled figures.

There once were hundreds of airships flying the world.

Airships evolved from hot-air balloons. Credit for the invention is given to Henri Giffard, a French engineer, whose cigar-shaped airship was powered by a 3-horsepower steam engine.

The golden age of airships was in the early 1900s, during the infancy of the aviation industry. Serving as the jetliners of yesteryear, airships were built by the Germans to carry passengers around the world. In World War I, Germans used airships to patrol the ocean and drop bombs.

At about the same time, Goodyear began building airships and soon became a leader in lighter-than-air craft. During World War I, it produced more than 250 airships for the Allies.

After World War I, airships became bigger, faster and stronger.

Germany's Graf Zeppelin carried thousands of passengers overseas and reached a speed of 80 m.p.h. The Goodyear-built Akron and Macon launched and received fighter planes.

Unlike today's airships, these massive airships contained a wooden or metal framework. They were called rigid airships. Today's blimps are non-rigid; they have no internal framework. Gas pressure maintains their shape.

The earliest ships were filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas. The Hindenburg crashed because its gas ignited.

Goodyear pioneered the use of helium gas in 1925. Non-flammable, helium could not lift as much weight as hydrogen, but was much safer.

The Akron, Macon and Hindenburg all crashed in the 1930s, ending the popularity of rigid airships. But the tragedies were partly responsible for the rise in interest in non-rigid airships, which were used mostly by the Navy during World War II to patrol coastal waters to detect German submarines and escort warships.

Blimps, however, began to be considered dinosaurs in an era of high technology.

The last airships built by Goodyear for the Navy, 10 times larger than today's blimps, were designed for use in the nation's early warning defense network. However, they were retired after more sophisticated early warning equipment was developed.

Still, Goodyear maintained its commercial airships, launched after World War I in an ahead-of-the-times advertising gimmick. Goodyear's blimps have toured the United States for almost 70 years and the three Goodyear blimps now log several hundred thousand miles a year.

One of the first to follow Goodyear's lead was the founder of Airship International. Louis J. Pearlman fell in love with blimps as a 10-year-old living in Flushing, N.Y.

After college, Pearlman started an aircraft-leasing company and then a helicopter sightseeing operation. By 1982, he was in the blimp business.

"Our first client was Jordache. It was a golden airship," said Bennett. "It took off and flew for three minutes and the sun heated up the gold paint and caused the airship to become unstable and lose its equilibrium. It crashed, just a few yards away from where the Hindenburg went down."

The company has become a world leader in the business. Currently, its blimps fly for Budweiser beer, Gulf Oil and Sea World, according to Bennett. Sea World's blimp is painted to depict Shamu the Whale.

The company also operated the infamous 194-foot Pink Floyd blimp, which it dubbed the world's first psychedelic neon airship. The blimp followed the British rock band from January to June to promote its North American tour.

The blimp is an ideal platform for television cameras because it flies low, is very stable and can idle its engines and hover indefinitely. In exchange for the use of their blimp, companies get free television exposure.

For companies leasing blimps, the $300,000-$400,000 monthly fee can generate the equivalent of $1 million in media advertising, Bennett said.

Today's blimps also offer pizazz with nighttime light shows.

Goodyear began lighting up its blimps in the late 1930s, with white neon tubing strapped to their sides.

Its current "Super Skytacular" incandescent night sign contains thousands of plastic lamps computer programmed to flash messages, animations and designs across the sky. Airship International, Fuji and Goodyear operate what is known in the lighter-than-air industry as sky ships--blimps which measure about 200 feet.

Most of the blimps operating today are known as mini-blimps, smaller versions that don't cost as much to operate, primarily because their ground crews are smaller.

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