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New Goodyear blimp unveiled

By JEANNE REALL

AKRON, Ohio -- Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. unveiled its newest public relations blimp, Spirit of Akron, the world's largest airship by volume and length.

A crowd of more than 100 local dignitaries and media members watched Tuesday as the hangar doors parted and the 205 -foot airship emerged, while a high school marching band played a medley of patriotic and space-technology tunes.

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'Wherever this ship goes, it will express our gratitude for nine decades of support in the Akron area,' Robert Mercer, Goodyear chairman, said.

Goodyear selected the name to thank Akron citizens for their support during the company's battle late last year against hostile raider James Goldsmith.

Goodyear won the war but the victory was costly. The company incurred $2.6 billion in new debt to buy back nearly half its outstanding shares, including Goldsmith's 12 million.

To finance the deal, Goodyear sold several subsidiaries, including an ancestral leader in the airship industry, Goodyear Aerospace Corp. Loral Corp. of New York purchased Aerospace, which it renamed Loral Systems Group. Loral completed production of Spirit of Akron.

The GZ-22 model blimp, which will replace the airship Enterprise in Pompano Beach, Fla., was christened with Florida orange juice instead of champagne. The action may have been a gesture of goodwill toward Pompano Beach officials, who expressed anger earlier this year when they learned the blimp was to be named after another city.

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'We have broken with the tradition of naming Goodyear blimps in honor of America's Cup winners,' Mercer told the crowd. 'The new name, for this new ship entering a new era, honors the city that has been home for Goodyear since 1898.'

Mercer said the Spirit of Akron is the world's first turbine-powered, vectored-thrust airship. In addition to the pilot, the craft holds nine passengers, three more than Goodyear's previous model, the GZ-20.

The blimp's cruising speed is about 40 mph, 10 mph faster than the GZ-20, and its top speed is 65 mph.

'It looks like they changed the speed limit just in time,' Mercer said, referring to Ohio's new highway law.

Tuesday's christening came 56 years after the Navy dirigible USS Akron was christened in August 1931. The USS Akron was a semi-rigid airship with a metal support framework.

Popularity of the rigid airships ended in the late 1930s with the tragic losses of the USS Akron, the Macon and the Hindenburg in just more than three years, Goodyear officials said.

Of the 312 airships Goodyear has built since 1917, 250 have been for the Army or Navy. The last military blimps Goodyear built were four ZPG-3W models, which were 10 times as large as present-day blimps.

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The Navy retired the last of its airships in 1962.

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