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Blimp Garage
Beacon Journal readers get an inside look at the birth of an airship

workmen mopping  blimp
Workmen mop and clean the deflated blimp envelope at the Goodyear Wingfoot
Lake facility. Photo by PAUL TOPLE/Akron Beacon Journal

It started with a crash.

One of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's three U.S. blimps went down during a severe thunderstorm in June 2005 about 35 miles north of Miami. There were no injuries, but the Stars & Stripes would fly no more.

The accident was big news in Akron. Goodyear is the city’s largest corporate citizen, and its ships frequent the local skies. Built in airdocks locally for decades, they’ve given Akron the nickname Blimp City.

When Goodyear announced in early October that it was building a new 192-foot airship, Beacon Journal business reporter Jim Mackinnon saw an opportunity.

The reporter had covered Goodyear for months and had written tough stories about the company’s struggles to maintain profits. He proposed a regular series giving readers an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Goodyear blimp in easily digestible stories. Business Editor David Hertz liked the idea and veteran photographer Paul Tople was assigned to shoot the pictures.

gondola being attached to blimp
The gondola is attached after the blimp is inflated with helium.
Photo by PAUL TOPLE/Akron Beacon Journal

Jim Arnold, senior content producer for Ohio.com, the Beacon Journal’s digital affiliate, came on board to help with exclusive online content, including streaming video. David J. Neawedde of Vivix Design was hired to develop flash animation.

Goodyear’s Wingfoot Lake hangar, about 15 miles east of Akron, is a massive structure built for World War I airships. It serves as headquarters for the company’s global blimp operations. Goodyear has built and housed blimps there for more than 80 years.

Mackinnon and Tople made regular trips to the hangar. They watched and learned. The journalists were impressed with the knowledge and openness of the Goodyear crew, which has a deep respect for the company’s decades-long history of airship-making.

An offhand comment from a Goodyear employee about the Discovery Channel’s off-the-wall, custom-vehicle-making show, Monster Garage, led to the series name: Blimp Garage. Beacon Journal artist Kathy Hagedorn came up with a sig. The first installment ran Dec. 4. Reader reaction was immediate and favorable.

The series has touched on major milestones. In the first story, Tople and Mackinnon offered a rare glimpse of what it is like inside the blimp’s envelope – while it was partially inflated with air – as crew members patched pinpoint leaks.

Arnold posted time-lapse video of the hours-long process of filling the envelope with helium. Photographs that didn’t make it into the paper were posted as online slideshows.

photo of inflated blimp
Sand bags hold the inflated blimp in place while the gondola is attached.
Photo by PAUL TOPLE/Akron Beacon Journal

Total unique Web site views, including archived stories, were 12,407 as of March 29. There were 5,455 video downloads.

“I want to tell you how much I am enjoying the series on building the new blimp,” Ingrid Wenger wrote in an e-mail. “It is the most interesting series I have ever followed in the Beacon in the 20-plus years I have been reading it. I’m nominating you for the ‘Journalism That Doesn’t Need Sex, Violence, Scandal or Corruption To Be Excellent’ award.”

Jim Smithkey suggested that a book be published. “Í thought I’d send you this note to thank you for writing the series of how the blimps are built,” he wrote. “I’ve been waiting for years for someone to take on a book like this. I’m a longtime blimp fan with many blimp books and pictures. … I just saw the video of the bag being inflated – awesome!”

Others who started reading in the middle of the series wanted to find earlier stories. Wrote Nancy Lockwood: “This series of blimp articles is different. That said, I am kicking myself for not being a diligent reader of the Business News section of the Beacon Journal! I have missed three articles! Will there be any chance to get the entire series, or if not, back issues?”

A recent article took readers on a test flight in the still unnamed blimp. The series will conclude with the blimp’s christening sometime in late April. ><

Go to http://www.ohio.com/mld/ohio/news/photos/13369501.htm for the entire project.

Jim Mackinnon, left, Dave Hertz, Paul Tople and Jim Arnold
Jim Mackinnon, left, Dave Hertz, Paul Tople and Jim Arnold, pictured in the Goodyear hanger at Wingfoot Lake, worked on Blimp Garage, an Akron Beacon Journal series that detailed the construction of a blimp.
Photo by LEW STAMP/Akron Beacon Journal

Who’s Who
Jim Mackinnon joined Knight Ridder in 1992 as a reporter at the (State College, Pa.) Centre Daily Times. He became the paper’s assistant city editor, then city editor, before going to the Akron Beacon Journal in 1999 as a business reporter. He currently covers Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, the plastics/polymer industry and the regional economy. Mackinnon has a B.S. from Syracuse University and an M.S. from Columbia University (both in journalism).

David Hertz grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Virginia and a master’s in journalism at the University of Missouri. Hertz worked at the Boca Raton (Fla.) News for five years as a reporter and editor before joining the Beacon Journal in 1991. He has held various jobs including business editor and enterprise editor. He has filled in as business editor since May 2005. Hertz proposed and helped organize the newspaper‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into race relations. He has edited several award-winning efforts, including B.F. Goodrich’s decision to leave Akron, a series on babies born in secret in Georgia and then sold to adults desperate to adopt, and a series on the plight of gay teens.

Paul Tople, who joined the Akron Beacon Journal in 1972, has contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning projects at the paper. He has worked as an assistant chief photographer and staff photographer. He has won numerous awards and was honored as a distinguished alumni by the Kent State University School of Journalism, from which he graduated with a B.S. in 1970.

Jim Arnold, senior producer for Ohio.com, was the second employee on board when the site was launched in 1996. He came from the Akron Beacon Journal, where he was a photo editor from 1994 to 1996. A 1988 Ohio University School of Journalism grad, he worked as a staff photographer at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., before joining Knight Ridder in 1990 at The (Columbia, S.C.) State as a staff photographer and later a photo editor.

 

Photo Slideshow
blimp slideshow