Bill Bayliss sees the world in a way few others do: cruising the skies at about 1,500 feet doing around 35 mph.

He is one of the lucky few who get to pilot one of the most enduring symbols of corporate America, the Goodyear Blimp, which celebrated its 90th birthday in the skies above Santa Maria on Wednesday. Goodyear’s first blimp, Pioneer, was christened June 3, 1925. Bayliss said he is a member of a very small fraternity who get to fly slow enough and low enough to enjoy the view.

“The view is definitely one thing that never gets old,” he said as he steered the 190-foot long, 14,000-pound airship over Santa Maria. 

The Spirit of America stopped at the Santa Maria Public Airport for two days of passenger flights and tours as it embarked on its West Coast Farewell Tour. The crew of 24, including four pilots, will visit Livermore; Arcata; Eugene, Oregon; and Shelton, Washington, before returning to Sacramento on its way to its home base of Carson.

The venerable GZ-20A was christened on Sept. 5, 2002, by Letitia Driscoll, mother of New York City Police Officer Steve Driscoll who died when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. It is one of only two GZ-20A airships remaining in service in the world.

“Our claim to fame is we’re more rare than astronauts,” said Bayliss, a Great Britian-born but San Joaquin Valley-raised pilot who also is a flight instructor.

Along with the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Goodyear blimps are easily one of the most recognizable corporate symbols in American history, with the first — Pilgrim — taking flight in 1925. And over the past 60 years, they have flown over sporting events from PGA golf to NASCAR events to the Super Bowl. The also cover the Academy Awards, Rose Parade, X-Games and ESPYs.

History is very important to Bayliss and the crew of approximately two dozen assigned to the Spirit of America. Not only was the blimp christened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Goodyear airships have been serving the country since 1925 and never more importantly than during times of war.

Goodyear was founded in 1898 and almost drafted into service in both world wars. Between 1942 and 1944, 152 Navy airships were built at Wingfoot Lake, New Jersey, Moffett Field in San Jose and Akron (Ohio) Airdock and put into service.

Bayliss said the airship’s ability to stay airborne for long periods was an important part of the Navy’s convoy escort duty, and during World War II, there were no ships reported lost when a blimp was on watch.  “They have a lot of history, and that’s why it’s cool to fly something like this,” he said.

The Spirit of America will provide aerial coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay, Washington, and the U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento before flying off into the sunset. Its tailfins and gondola, which has provided rides to thousands of lucky passengers over the past 13 years, will be displayed at a museum once it is retired.

Bayliss, who was a flight instructor before joining the Goodyear crew, said it takes close to a year of training to become certified to pilot an airship. He said most of the pilots have commercial flying or helicopter backgrounds. He also said it takes a huge effort by the ground crew to keep the airships flying.

Cruising over Santa Maria gives passengers an amazing view of the vast strawberry and vegetable fields covering the valley on each side of the city. It’s a perspective few people ever get.  “You actually get to enjoy the view,” Bayliss said.

In addition to the flights, the pilot and ground crew will be offering tours to members of the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Maria Valley.

The Spirit of America’s retirement will make way for an all-new fleet of NT Zeppelins for Goodyear, which should be ready in a couple of years, according to company spokeswoman Priscilla Tasker.

2015-06-04T00:00:00Z Spirit of American flies into sunsetBrian Bullock bbullock@leecentralcoastnews.com Santa Maria Times

June 4, 2015   •  By Brian Bullock – Santa Maria Times