The newest arrival in the National Air and Space Museum’s inventory of historic aircraft is the C-49 airship control car. Produced by Goodyear Tire and Rubber, it first took to the air as the pressure airship Enterprise (NC-16A) on August 23, 1934. The craft operated in the Washington, D.C. and New York metropolitan areas until November 1941, when it was flown back to Wingfoot Lake, Akron, Ohio to serve as a training craft. Early in WW II it patrolled northern Ohio checking on compliance with blackout regulations.
Acquired by the US Navy in 1942, the craft was shipped to Moffett Field, California. Re-designated L-5 it spent most of the war as a training craft but saw some patrol duty. Re-acquired by Goodyear on January 24, 1946, the control car was rebuilt to operate with the new GZ-20 class commercial blimps in 1969 and registered as N4A on May 12, 1970. It was back in the air once again as the airship Columbia IV in July 1975, and remained in service for over a decade, logging thousands of hours of passenger flights, night sign messaging, and corporate service.
The control car saw duty over the 1977, 1980, 1983, and 1985 Super Bowls; the 1981 and 1984 World Series; Rose Bowl games and parades; and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It starred in the Hollywood thriller Black Sunday (1977) and made appearances in several other films. C-49 spans much of the history of the pressure airship in America and represents the wide range of military and commercial roles played by blimps. The car was permanently retired in 1986 and made its final journey to the Smithsonian in November 2011.
The arrival of this historic control car provides an excuse to offer some thoughts on the etymology of the word “blimp.” First, some basic definitions. All Zeppelins are dirigibles, but not all dirigibles are Zeppelins. A dirigible is any powered lighter-than-air craft capable of maneuvering. For the linguistically fastidious, a Zeppelin is a rigid airship manufactured by the Zeppelin Company, or by Goodyear-Zeppelin, the American firm that produced the two great U.S. naval airships, ZRS-4, USS Akron (1931-1933), and ZRS-5, USS Macon (1933-1935).
Rigid airships have internal frameworks of metal or wood that gives the craft its shape. The lifting gas, hydrogen or helium, is contained in large gas cells inside the framework. Non-rigid airships, or pressure airships, maintain their shape only because the pressure inside the envelope, or gas bag, is slightly higher than the external air pressure. Let the lifting gas out and the envelope is an empty bag lying on the ground.
Pressure airships are commonly known as blimps. The origin of that term has caused a good many arguments. One story relates to an English officer, Lt. A.D. Cunningham, RN, who entered a hangar containing a pressure airship in 1915. He was unable to resist plunking his finger on the gas bag, which produced the sound “blimp.” By noon that day his mess mates were applying the word to their gas bags. Another accounts claims that Horace Short, the famous British aircraft builder, took one look at an early Sea Scout airship, with a B.E.2C airplane fuselage hanging beneath a gas bag, and immediately dubbed the thing a blimp, commenting, “What else would you call it?”
Whatever the origin of the name, blimps have been delighting us since the late 19th century. C-49, one of the longest-lived of all Goodyear airships, will proudly represent her kind for generations to come at the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
Tom D. Crouch is a senior curator of the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.