There are some opportunities in life that only come by very, very rarely. As it turns out, the opportunity to spend time in the iconic Goodyear Blimp at Le Mans is one of them.
It was the Monday prior to the Le Mans Test Day when I got something of an unexpected phone call.
The question was quite simple: would I be interested in having a ride in the Goodyear Blimp on the weekend of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
It did not take an awfully long time to make up my mind, and I readily agreed for a spot on Saturday evening, about four hours into the twice-around-the-clock enduro.
To say I was giddy with excitement was something of an understatement. To even be offered the opportunity is very, very rare. Passenger rides on the Goodyear Blimp are invite-only, with rides for the general public an extremely rare occurrence.
First: a bit of a history lesson. The history of the flying colossi in Goodyear’s fleet dates back almost as far as the company itself. Goodyear was founded in 1899 and its first prototype airship took to the skies in 1917.
While also helping out during the Second World War, the flying giants were not introduced in Europe until 1972, when the Europa made its maiden voyage over the United Kingdom.
In the years that followed, the airship made regular appearances at both Formula 1 events and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In the present age, the firm has a fleet consisting of four vessels. Three out of four, the so-called Wingfoot One, Two and Three, are based in the United States, while a fourth ship is based in and operated out of Europe.
It was this Blimp that popped back up at last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, its first appearance in a motorsport-related capacity in years. It also made an appearance at the Six Hours of Monza in July, and it was this vessel that would once again be flying over the Circuit de la Sarthe this year.
It first made an appearance in the skies over Le Mans in the days leading up to the great race, and every time the blue-and-white behemoth was seen floating overhead, it would heighten anticipation for what was to come on Saturday.
And so, Saturday came. While the initial downpour that led to the extremely entertaining opening hour of the race was something of a personal concern (can blimps fly in heavy rain, I thought to myself), thankfully the weather settled down and the flight went ahead as planned.
Just over an hour before the flight was scheduled, me and a couple of fellow passengers were collected from the Le Mans media center and guided to a waiting shuttle, which then took us on a drive of some 20 minutes away from the circuit to a remote countryside field.
The reason for this, of course, is that you can’t just land a vessel of this size anywhere. According to Goodyear itself, the Blimp measures in at 75 meters (246 feet) in length. In order to land that safely, you’re going to need a pretty significant open space.
While ground staff gave a safety briefing about the boarding procedure, the airship came into view. It slowly approached and touched down, ready to take on a new load of passengers.
There were a few short moments to appreciate the gigantic size of the ship before we needed to focus on the rather unusual way of boarding the vessel.
Instead of the boarding free-for-all that is surely familiar to anyone that has ever flown with a budget airline before, it took place on a two-by-two basis: two passengers would first leave the aircraft, after which two new ones would make their way on board. This was repeated until all of the previous passengers had been completely replaced by the new group.
Once on board, the first thing you notice is just how similar the cabin of the Blimp is to a small airplane. There’s a row of seats on either side, with the cockpit all the way out front. It’s a bit more spacious than your run-of-the-mill airliner, and the windows are significantly bigger.
While seated, you also barely notice the gigantic structure above your head that is keeping you in the air.
According to Goodyear, the ship has a capacity of 16: two pilots and a total of 14 passengers.
After another short safety briefing, the Blimp takes off, which is a surreal experience. Takeoff is vertical, not unlike a helicopter, and you look out of the window as the ground underneath you becomes smaller and smaller.
Goodyear says that the Blimp’s ideal cruising height is 300 meters, so the journey is absolutely not for those suffering from fear of heights.
If you don’t, however, the experience is a special one. The Blimp can pick up some pretty serious speed, much more than you would perhaps expect, and the Circuit de la Sarthe soon began appearing off in the distance.
After a few minutes, the Blimp moved over the track. As someone who’s been to the circuit a fair few times, seeing it from hundreds of metres up in the sky was unbelievable.
It makes you see the famous track in a way you’ve never seen before. Watching the cars go round from such height is rather remarkable.
It also gives a much better picture of how fast the cars are actually going, especially down the Mulsanne straight. After all, the TV feed can sometimes distort your perspective a little bit.
The Blimp hovered over the paddock for a good while, and with the vessel at cruising altitude, passengers were allowed to walk about and look at the track from different viewpoints.
Hanging over the Dunlop chicane also allowed for some interesting viewing, like seeing the Absolute Racing Porsche pull off a not unimpressive powerslide while accelerating out of the corner.
Had we been there a little longer, I could potentially even have had a bird’s eye view of the collision between the two United Autosports ORECAs at that very corner.
But alas, that was not the case as the Blimp soon started moving back towards the landing zone, leaving the Circuit de la Sarthe behind. It provided one final glimpse of the iconic venue from a very unusual perspective.
Not long thereafter, the vessel landed back in the field and the same two-by-two boarding procedure started again, only this time I was the party getting off the vessel.
Walking away, we were given one more glimpse of the imposing machine before being transported back to the track, back to focus on the remaining long hours of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Full disclosure: This experience was offered by Goodyear ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Thanks goes out to them for arranging this unique opportunity.