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SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Now 90 years old, the Goodyear blimp is an American aerial icon which has been instantly recognizable for generations.

"People love seeing it," said pilot William Bayliss. "These engines make a very distinct sound and we're moving slowly. When we're flying over houses, people will come out, run out, and see there's the blimp." This week, Goodyear's Spirit of America blimp is stopping in Santa Maria for the first leg of the airship's west coast farewell tour. Coincidentally, the stop in Santa Maria falls on the 90th birthday of the Goodyear blimp. On June 3, 1925, Goodyear launched its first commercial airship, starting an aviation era that remains strong to this day. "It (Spirit of America) will be decommissioned at the end of summer, but it's a great way of doing one last tour with the airship," said pilot Matthew St. John.

The Spirit of America has been in operation since 2002. The airship has flown thousands of miles, and is best known for providing aerial coverage for many notable sporting events, including Super Bowl XLIX earlier this year in Glendale, Arizona.

As part of its month long farewell tour, the blimp is stopping in six different cities, including Santa Maria, Livermore, Arcata and Sacramento in California, plus Eugene, Oregon and Shelton, Washington. During its tour stops, a select group of passengers will get to climb aboard and experience a ride few get the opportunity to enjoy. "We're doing customer appreciation rides," said St. John. "People that work with Goodyear, and we're going to fly them as a way of saying thanks for their business.

Those fortunate to ride in the blimp say the experience is a one-in-a-lifetime event and note the views are simply breathtaking.

"I've never seen Santa Maria like that before, so it was an awesome experience, way different than a plane," said Charles Barba, who rode in the blimp on Wednesday afternoon. "It was just the most amazing trip ever and it met all my expectations," said passenger Gayle Macias.  "It was an amazing ride, it's something that I had on my bucket list, and I can now check that off."

While the first-time passengers are understandably amazed at the ride, so too are the pilots, even those who have been at the controls for years.

"You actually get to enjoy the scenery, which is nice. You're not moving very fast in a blimp, so you have plenty of time to tell stories," said Bayliss. "It gives you a great opportunity to see a lot of the countryside that most people don't get the opportunity to have," said St. John. "Yesterday was amazing, flying off the coast of Santa Barbara, we saw whales."

The Goodyear Spirit of America will remain in Santa Maria on Thursday and will provide several more rides to invited guests. Its next stop is Livermore, where it will dock from June 5 through June 9. The blimp is headed to the Seattle area, where it will provide aerial coverage of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington. The golf tournament will be held June 18-21 and will be televised for first time ever by FOX Sports. The blimp's month-long journey will total more than 2,600 miles and will include more than two dozen crew members, most of whom travel with the blimp on the ground.

When Spirit of America, which is based in Carson, California, is retired this August, its gondola will be donated to a yet to be identified museum. The airship will be replaced temporarily by its sister ship, Spirit of Innovation, which is currently based in Florida. Eventually, a new state-of-the-art blimp will replace Spirit of America, launching another era for Goodyear's iconic airship fleet.

Written on Friday, June 12, 2015 by Melissa
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