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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.

good year

The Goodyear blimp Columbia N4A, utilizing the C-49 car launches from the Marine Corps Air Station , Tustin, Ca. circa 1978.

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.

Black Sunday

Black Sunday

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.


Goodyear C-49 airship control car


Tom D. Crouch is a senior curator of the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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6 thoughts on “Blimp!

  1. This control car looks as though it will need some restorative work done to it before it can be displayed. When does the museum plan to display it? Doesn’t the museum own some older blimp control cars as well? Finally, I know the Udvar-Hazy Center will be expanding in the future to include the storage and restorating complex. Does the NASM have any plans to expand the display area of Udvar-Hazy? It would be interesting to have an entire blimp on display and not just the gondola. Lighter than air aircraft have played an important part in aviation history. Udvar-Hazy is huge; but it would nice to also include an entire 747 (it’s such an important aircraft), C-130, B-17 etc.

  2. Indeed, the C-49 control car is in need of restoration. Our friends at Goodyear Airship Operations at Wingfoot Lake, near Akron, are pulling together additional materials that will eventually be used to return the car to its appearance in the 1970s. That will be some years in the future. In the meantime, the craft is parked in the south end of the Boeing Aviation hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center, along with other flying machines waiting their turn in our new restoration hangar, where at least it can be seen by visitors. I agree that it would be great to display an entire airship, but the limitations of space, even in a facility as large as the Udvar-hazy Center, preclude that. One day, however, I hope that we will be able to display other elements of the airship, including the nose cone and fins, to give visitors some notion of scale.

  3. When I was a young child I used to spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, which was located a couple of miles from the Pompano Beach Airpark, which has long been a Goodyear blimp base. One day, after much begging, my dad took my to the airport to watch the Goodyear land. As my dad and I stood at the perimeter fence, we were approached by an official looking gentlemen; suspecting that we were in trouble because I was climbing on the fence, we were shocked and relieved to be offered a ride! Even though it wasn’t possible to purchase a ride on the blimp, we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Although I was only about 10 years old at the time, I’ll never forget the pilot’s name: R.G. Daniels. I decided that day that I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. I never really grew up, but I DID become a pilot. About 12 years later, while sitting in basic indoctrination class without about 25 other pilots, I was asked to tell the group why I became a pilot, at which point I told the story about my childhood blimp ride. After the class, one of my classmates asked me if I’d ever considered flying the blimp again, to which I laughed, because it seemed like an impossibility. Then, to my surprise, he explained that he was the former chief pilot for Fuji Airship operations and that he may be able to “pull some strings” (no pun intended) to get me behind the controls. I took him up on his generous offer, and true to his word, I was given the opportunity to fly the Fuji Skyship 600. Needless to say, blimps have played a unique roll in my life, and I am happy to see that this piece of history will be preserved and displayed for generations to come.

  4. I worked for Goodyear in the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s in the retail division. One year they had a promotion for decorating our location with the top winning stores getting rides on the Blimp. My manager and I spent some serious time getting our store spiffed up with the result being a ride on one of the Blimps at Dulles airport….boy what a memory!

  5. Ha, I was in TN a few weeks ago on a lake and the Goodyear Blimp flew right over us. It was really awesome seeing one.

  6. These are great stories! I have a 7 year old son who is a blimp fanatic. His goal when he grows up; to make blimps the most popular form of transportation, and of course, to be a blimp pilot! :)

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