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The Great Blimp Race
New York 5th July 1986


. To see one Skyship in the sky was a treat, to see two is rare but five at once?

 

Documents
 
Route Map
PHOTO GALLERY
An impressive start line. Notice the superimposed Airship Industries logo on SK600-04. This photo was a doctored photo from the cover of the 1986 Airship Industries report and accounts. SK600-04 had no sponsorship banner on the day of the race.
The official start line showing all 4 competitors and the SK600-04 observer airship in front, and the WDL McDonalds ship forms up at the end of the lineup.
 
Mr. Carl Chapman of Fuji US being presented with the cheque for the winning team.
Press photos of the airships taking part in the race.
 
 

This is what happened on Saturday 5th July 1986, when four airships raced around Manhattan and New York State.

The date was chosen as it was also the centenary celebrations of the Statue of Liberty. The weekend of events held in New York were also to coincide with the refurbished statue.

The race was billed as the first if it's kind in the history of aviation, although the organisers seemed to have overlooked that lighter than air and balloon racing had been going on for many decades before this. However, this time it would be airships which would have the fun.

A press conference was held at 10:00am on tuesday 3rd June, and in the Observation Tower of the Empire State Building.Again this was a nod to the perceived idea that the Empire State Building was looked to be used as a mooring mast for airships, despite a couple of attempts, this was not to be the case in the 1930's.

Sponsored by the Daily News, the press were ushered in to meet the Captains of the airships who were in the race. Details were outlined of the concept, idea, indeed the rules of the race.

The idea being to raise awareness of the airships, promoters and sponsors, but also award a prize of $25,000 ($62,000 2022) from Citibank, to the winners chosen charity.

Of the fifteen in the world at the time, four ships were to be competing in the race, with a fifth used as a filming platform.

 

The Airships

 

Airship Year Built Registration Sponsor Captain
SK 500-03
1983
G-SKSA
Citibank
Captain Peter Buckley
SK 500-06
1985
G-SKSH
Fuji Film
Captain Trevor Hunt
WDL
1975
D-LDFM
McDonald's
Captain Alfred (Corky) Belanger
SK 600-03
1985
G-SKSG
Resorts International
Captain William J Boughton
SK 600-04*
1986
Observer for New York Daily News
Dave Burns

*The Skyship 600 SK600-04 was the fastest airship in the Airship Industries fleet at the time, but not allowed to participate in the race, as the SK 600-03 was heavier as it was carrying an illuminating advertising nightsign.

The Resorts International airship, SK 600-03 was the first of the SK 600 class to fly in the United States, on 11th July 1985.

 

The Course

A twelve mile course was devised to test the airship speed and pilots skills.

The airships would leave New York harbor heading south on a FAA approved flight plan. They proceeded on a course due south over Staten Island to Keensburgh, New Jersey. Following the Jersey shore, south to Ashbury Park where the formation will make a 180 degree turn north on a course that took them past the beaches of Sandy Hook, and Coney Island.

The route took them east, past the Rockaways to Jones Beach. As the airships hovered over Jones Beach, they were saluted by the New York Pop's Orchestra lead by Stich Henderson. Stich, who was deemed the Grand Marshall of the race, composed a special symphony entitled "Blimphony" for the occasion. The 85 piece orchestra entertained beachgoers and spectators.

Turning north west from the beaches, across Long Island, and not far from Mineola where the first airship, the R 34 touched down making the first east west crossing of the Atlantic, some 67 years earlier.

The route then turned them eastwards down Long Island Sound, over the Bronx, and back over the George Washington Bridge.

The final stretch of the race was down the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, to the Statue of Liberty.

 

The Race

Starting at 4:00pm when the airships rendezvoused over the George Washington Bridge at an altitude of 1,000ft. A 50 year old de Havilland Gypsy Moth biplane flew across the the front of the airships bows, trailing a banner to signal the start of the race.

The McDonald's WDL airship first took the lead, however this didn't last very long as both the Fuji SK 500-06 and the Resorts SK600-03 overtook it.

Fuji's SK 500-06 won with a time of 15 minutes and 36 second, with the Resorts SK600-03 in as second. This was a very good performance of the ship, considering it was carying extra weight of the lightup nightsign. The WDL McDonald's ship came in third.. According to the New York Times recap that day, “The Citibank dirigible, moving at a bank-line pace of 17 minutes 16 seconds, brought up the rear", however this is an unfair comment not to do with the speed of the ship, but it was flown the race with one of it's propellors having issues.

The following personal account is a reflection of the day from Rod Burgess, who was the co-pilot of SK500-3 the "Citibank" airship.

I was Peter Buckley’s co-pilot on SK500-03 / G-SKSA, the ‘Citibank Blimp’ that day. It was quite a day. We were operating out of Republic Field (KFRG), Farmingdale, NY, out on Long Island, and the ship was doing about three weeks of ‘exposure’ flying around New York City, showing the advertising banners to the public.

Only days before, on 23 June, I’d passed my Civil Aviation Authority General Flying Test to qualify as an airship pilot, having joined Airship Industries that spring at Cardington. Peter was our Chief Pilot and Manager of Flight Ops. Since no CAA examiner was airship-qualified, Peter actually sat in the right-hand seat and ran the test, with Capt John Sweet, the examiner standing behind us making sure everything was done properly.

I remember John turning up in full uniform, complete with hat and collar-and-tie despite the fact that the temperature in the gondola used to get up to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

We knew we were at a disadvantage for the race. As you can see in the photographs, ‘SA was of the original design for the SKS 500, with the blunt tail. Both ‘Fuji’ (SK500-06 / ‘SH) and all the SKS 600 models had a more streamlined, pointed tail. Fuji’s advertising was painted directly onto the envelope, whereas the rest of us had fabric banners stretched along the sides and ‘Resorts’ had the illuminated night-sign, which added weight and drag.

The banners tended to ripple and flap in the airflow, causing drag. We didn’t know quite what to expect of the WDL-built ‘McDonalds’ – and Corky’s mount was a bit of a dark horse. All-in-all, Fuji was the favourite to win.

 

But Peter had a plan! The night before, ‘the boss’ persuaded the engineers to tweak the blade angles on Citibank’s propellers, hoping to squeeze a knot or two extra out of the old girl.

Normal cruising speed for both the 600 and 500 was 30 kt and the flight manual top speed was 50 kt for both. But airships, even more than fixed-wing aeroplanes, each have their own peculiarities and no two apparently identical ships will achieve the same speed at the same loading and power setting. Peter reckoned we might just be able to surprise the other guys.

On the day of the parade and the Great Blimp Race, we were up over New York Harbor good and early. The harbour was crammed with vessels of every size, shape and variety. I remember one heart-stopping moment: just as we passed quite low over an immense US Navy battleship, she fired a salute. Peter nearly leapt out of his skin.

“What was that?”

“They just fired a salute” I replied.

“Thank [expletive] for that. I thought we’d burst a ballonet!” Now that would have been entertaining.

As the other airships gathered, Peter acted as commodore of the gaggle. He led the five ships around the parade route in line astern. A close look at the map will show that we flew barely outside the perimeter fence of JFK International. I reckon we passed about 2 miles south of the control tower ‘not above one thousand feet’ at ATC instruction.

After turning inshore over Jones Beach, we headed NW across Nassau County, a little west of the red line planned and shown on the map. Approaching the vicinity of La Guardia airport, I was stunned to have the Tower controller suggest that we bring the whole fleet directly over the field on our way to join the Hudson River.

Sadly, due to a slight misunderstanding, Peter declined the offer and we passed just outside the airport’s NE boundary. Somehow, I can’t imagine many other international airports letting a bunch of slow-moving, wallowing airships within a country mile of them the way both New Yorkers did that day!

And so, to the final act – the Great Blimp Race itself. It took a bit of wriggling and squirming to get the four participants properly lined up over the George Washington Bridge but we finally managed it. And then we were off! The course was almost a straight line down the Hudson from the ‘GW’ to New York Harbour and the finishing line was a line of sight from Battery Park to the torch held by ‘Lady Liberty’.

No sooner had we started than it became clear that Peter’s propeller tweak was not going to give us an edge. In fact, the props didn’t like it at all and, if anything, ‘SA was not even achieving the speeds we normally saw. With the engines at max throttle, we watched the rest of the field steadily drawing away from us. Oh, the shame of it! Last place. I’m sure the official times are more accurate but my log book shows that Fuji took 15:20 to complete the course and we took 17:00. The ship was airborne continuously for 10 hours, 30 minutes and we covered an estimated 200 nm in that time.

I have a great many fantastic memories of my time flying airships in Britain, Europe and the USA but I can honestly say that the day of the Great Blimp Race is a very special one.

The winning team were presented with a 2ft long airship trophy from James Hodge, the publisher of the Daily News, and a cheque for $25,000, which was passed to the Boys' Clubs of America as their chosen charity.

Once the race was over, all five airships circled the Statue of Liberty before returning to their local operational fields in the New York State areas.

 

Did you know, there were seven?

Out of a total of fifteen airships in the world in 1986, there were seven airships seen over New York over the celebratory weekend. The other two airships were both Goodyear Aerospace GZ20 class ships, one named Enterprise (N1A) and America (N3A). Goodyear had ordered the crews not to participate in the race.

At the time the Navy contract for a large non rigid patrol airship had not been finanized and Goodyear Aerospace didn't want the risk of coming second to a Skyship, to tarnish their image.

According to pilot Trevor Hunt in the SK 500-06 confirmed that the Goodyear pilots had been told to stay away from the Fuji liveried ship, in Long Beach, after our camera crew filmed them slowly overtaking them. Hunt commented that the best part was, that he was filmed re-starting the port engine, and then left them standing.

Did you see the race? Were you there at the celebratory events that weekend? If you have any photo's or recollections please share them with us.

Legacy

A second New York Blimp race was organised on Indepencence Day, 4th July 2011, where three airships were used:

Lighship A170LS - DirectTV Sponsorship
Lightship A60+ Horizon Blue Cross Shield Sponsorship
Lightship A60+ Hangar One Vodka Sponsorship

Again the route was a race down the Hudson river and around the Statue of Liberty.

The winner was Hangar One Vodka.

 

Related ships: SkyShip 600, SkyShip 5000

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