Flying aboard Goodyear’s anti-gravity machine

Editor’s Note: CNN’s Thom Patterson covered the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at @thompatterson.

Story highlights

Goodyear shows off its new Zeppelin at the world-famous Oshkosh airshow

"Wingfoot One" is longer, faster and more nimble than older blimps

For the first time in generations, this aviation icon shifts to a new design

CNN  — 

Really, it’s an anti-gravity machine.

That’s what I’m thinking as I stand under the looming shadow of Goodyear’s new Zeppelin. The helium inside this gigantic thing makes it repel gravity. Its natural inclination is to rise.

This week, this airship has been floating over an estimated half-million people at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Now, I’m actually about to fly on it!

As the airship’s metal gondola hovers just a couple of feet off the grass, I can see two pilots in the cockpit. At the back, a set of folding steps extends to the ground as if to say, “Welcome aboard Wingfoot One.”

Just the fact that an actual Zeppelin is flying at Oshkosh this year is a treat, even for the most jaded of aviation enthusiasts. The word Zeppelin conjures up visions from 1930s newsreels of huge airships cruising above the Atlantic.

Zeppelins also remind me of the Hollywood fantasy portrayed in the Jude Law film “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” It seemed like everyone in that 2004 movie had their own airplane or blimp.

I strap myself in along with a handful of other aviation adventurers, including Goodyear Vice President Pierre Jambon.

Finally, pilots Michael Dougherty and Derek Reid unleash the beast! In no time, we’re flying, gaining altitude pretty quickly until we reach 1,200 feet under a crystal blue sky and light winds.

Goodyear Zeppelin pilot Michael "Doc" Dougherty steers the airship above Oshkosh's annual aviation festival on Thursday.

When it comes to lighter-than-air ships, this ain’t my first go-round.

In December, I spent New Year’s Eve flying 2,000 feet above Atlanta in an older, non-Zeppelin Goodyear blimp called the GZ20A. I even got to spend a few minutes steering it with my hands and feet.

Goodyear's older models are based on a 45-year-old design.

But this flight is going to be a new thrill. Here’s why:

More room: The difference between the older blimp’s gondola and the gondola in the Zeppelin is like night and day.

Seating on the old model was cramped for a maximum of seven passengers. But this new cabin comfortably holds a dozen people. And it’s the first Goodyear blimp with seat belts.

And there’s a cozy little alcove in the rear that offers beautiful panoramic views. On the old blimp, you could actually open the windows and get a nice whiff of whatever was below. Not here. On the Zeppelin, these windows are sealed.

The gondola of Goodyear's new Zeppelin airship seats 12, which is five more than its predecessor.

It’s got a restroom. Goodyear’s older blimps were not outfitted with such “modern conveniences” as “indoor plumbing.”

Finally, after decades of holding it during six-hour flights, passengers and crew can safely and privately take a whiz aboard the Goodyear Blimp. And, thanks to a big window, this powder room’s got a pretty nice view! (No, I didn’t test it, thank you very much.)

More power: Three “thrust-vectored” engines allow the airship to maneuver a little like a helicopter. Because it’s filled with helium, the Zeppelin is always trying to float upward. But pilots in this new airship can swivel these engines so the propellers are pointed up, pushing the airship toward the ground.

The old version’s two engines didn’t swivel. When it was close to the ground, the blimp was harder to control. A stiff wind was all it took to make it buck like a bronco. Controlling that bronco required a ground crew to hold it with ropes.

With the new Zeppelin, there’s none of that. Not only is the angle of the engine adjustable, pilots can fine-tune the angle of the propellers themselves, tweaking the airship’s position even further.

More power makes this airship faster than the old model, which moseyed along at a maximum 50 mph. Unfortunately, today our pilots won’t demonstrate this aircraft’s maximum speed of 73 mph. They’ve got us cruising at a respectable 26 mph.

Reid said he reached 110 mph last year when he piloted Wingfoot One on its maiden flight. “We actually hit a record for me personally,” he said. “We had a really good tailwind on it.” Reid says that when you’re in the cockpit, it handles like a machine that really wants to fly.

Better controls: In the old blimps, pilots steered using controls connected to steel cables that moved the rudder and elevators at the back of the aircraft.

These new Zeppelins are controlled electronically with “fly-by-wire” technology that makes them much easier and more reliable. Pilots have a handy cockpit monitor that shows them the real-time configuration of all the parts that steer the Zeppelin.

Longer profile: Wingfoot One is 50 feet longer than the old blimps.

It’s not a blimp: But Goodyear wants to call it one anyway.

Experts are annoyed by this because these Zeppelins have an internal skeleton, which by definition makes them “semi-rigid dirigibles.” Blimps don’t have skeletons.

But Goodyear likes the word “blimp.” The company has pretty much owned that word for generations now, and it’s not letting go. “It’s recognizable as an icon, and that’s never going to change,” Dougherty said.

Oh, and let’s be clear: It’s not the Hindenburg. Yeah, everybody asks about the Hindenburg.

Goodyear’s new aircraft are indeed built by the same company that made the famous airship that burned in 1937, killing 36.

But Goodyear’s Zeppelins are much smaller and filled with helium, not the more flammable hydrogen that Hindenburg used.

In fact, the pilots joke that the only thing Wingfoot One has in common with the old blimps is the helium. Goodyear’s remaining two older models are expected to be replaced by Zeppelins by 2018.

Goodyear plans to switch out its remaining two blimps with new Zeppelins by 2018.

When the airship levels out, we’re allowed to get up from our seats and “move freely about the cabin,” as they say.

The view outside these extra-large windows is nothing short of spectacular. I can see giant tents and colorful airplanes parked at the air show below. Flying below us, I spot vintage aircraft, experimental planes and helicopters. Off in the distance, Lake Winnebago shimmers in the sun.

It’s hard to describe, but there really is something about this kind of flying that sets it apart from airplanes or helicopters. It’s something wistful and romantic, in a different way.

“Lighter-than-air seems to be a category of aircraft that captures people’s imaginations,” Jambon said.

“It’s peaceful; it’s slow; it’s a wonderful experience. Will there be an airship renaissance? Anything is possible, but I wouldn’t predict that,” he said. “But the legacy of Goodyear in designing and building and operating airships is over 100 years old – nearly as old as the company. So that’s a connection that we feel strongly attached to.”

After a while, this sightseeing tour is over. It’s time to take our seats, strap in and prep for something special: a pitch landing. Dougherty puts the Zeppelin into a 30-degree downward pitch toward our landing zone.

Whoa! We can definitely feel it.

Yep, this new airship may be more sophisticated than its predecessor, but when it wants to, it can still get a little sassy.