Bill Bayliss looks like a pilot. From the tinted aviators to the slicked hair, he looks like he could drop in a Mad Men set and take Don Draper on his next flight to New York.
But in a Goodyear blimp, it would probably take a while.
Bayliss, of Redondo Beach, is one of four pilots for the Spirit of Innovation, based in Carson. There are just two blimps in the Goodyear fleet, and one semi-rigid airship based in Ohio. The Goodyear blimp is iconic. It's used mainly for advertising at big events, like the Super Bowl, but is a common sight above the beach cities during some days.
“Do you want to know what the official bird of Redondo is?” Bayliss asked his four passengers. “You're sitting in it.”
That's actually not an exaggeration. The city of Redondo Beach classified the Goodyear Blimp as the official city bird in 1983 in anticipation of the 1984 summer Olympics.
These days, blimps are old school. Goodyear created its first commercial non-rigid airship to use helium in 1925. The Pilgrim was the first blimp to be used the way Goodyear blimps are used today—mostly as a public relations tool. It began carrying a lighted “Goodyear” sign in 1930.
Blimps were used in both World Wars, but by the 1950s were used mostly in television. Bayliss' job includes a fair amount of sporting events: football games, golf tournaments and baseball games are all common. But he's not exactly watching the game.
He's often listening to air traffic control, or the technical director while surfing above the crowd. Every once a while a person will point a laser at the blimp, which is fine if it's at the 192-foot long blimp, but a federal offense if it's aimed at the gondola.
Flying was Bayliss' first love. He first flew to the U.S. from England in a Boeing 747 when he was just three years old.
“I still have my British Airways wings,” he said.
Though he was born in England, he grew up in Fresno, before attending the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Bayliss has been at Goodyear for 2 years, but a pilot for 12.
He worked as a teacher for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for nearly six years before becoming a first officer at Horizon Air. Then a position at Goodyear opened up. It took nearly a year to be hired. Especially in California, turnover is low.
But flying a blimp isn't easy business. The cockpit is a series of knobs and buttons, with a wheel standing vertically next to Bayliss' seat.
“As far as hands-on flying, I've never done something more hands-on than this,” he said.
The blimp can stay in the air 30 to 40 hours nonstop if it needs to, but trips are typically shorter than that. Takeoff and landing depends on the wind. The blimp weighs 14,000 pounds before the helium ends up in the balloon. There are actually two balloons inside of the larger balloon which help dip the blimp forward or backward.
The Goodyear blimp typically sticks around 1,500 feet above land. Though it could go up to 10,000 feet, it's not very successful at higher altitudes. So, they like to keep it slow and low.
“I tell people I'm not much of a pilot these days, I'm more of a tire salesman,” said Bayliss.
To ride on a Goodyear blimp, you need to know a guy. Last week was Bill Church's second time on a Goodyear blimp. His buddy manages a Goodyear tire store. The corporation occasionally donates a ride to a nonprofit organization if it willing to provide Goodyear with promotional placement in its materials, and fits the mission.
At the end of the ride, Bayliss signs a business card with the date as a marker for riding the blimp. Church tucked his in his wallet, along with the card from his first ride.
The Spirit of Innovation will retire in 2017, and will be replaced by a newer model. The newer model, which is quiet and faster than its predecessors, will also involve less of a workout than Bayliss is used to. He is always correcting what the wind is doing, and landing and taking off on feel. But he'll stay as a pilot for Goodyear.
“Until they don't let me do it anymore,” he said with a smile.