Easing into the pilot’s chair of the Goodyear Blimp as it circled downtown Frederick on Wednesday, 86-year-old Fairfax, Virginia, resident Patrick C. Kelliher recalled the last time he went up in an airship — in the Navy in April 1955.
“I was an aviation electronic technician and they asked if anybody wanted to fly, and I went into the squadron and I put my hand up right away,” Kelliher said of his introduction to piloting. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Despite Kelliher’s last experience with airships having taken place 64 years ago, the former pilot said Wednesday’s trip felt much the same in terms of the smoothness of the ride and the complexity and sophistication of the instrument panel in the pilots’ seats.
“It was wonderful. It brought back a lot of memories,” Kelliher said after the hourlong flight over the city of Frederick.
Kelliher was joined by his son Joe Kelliher, who said he was overjoyed to get to see his father relive his piloting career.
“We’ve been trying to get him back up since I was a little kid, so when we reached out to Goodyear in December — this has been nine months, back and forth — and Goodyear has been phenomenal to us in organizing all of this. They really went out of their way for us,” Joe said.
Frederick residents may have noticed Goodyear’s Wingfoot Three airship floating above Frederick last week, but a different ship, designated Wingfoot One, flew back to Frederick Municipal Airport this week from Goodyear’s headquarters in Akron, Ohio, to accommodate the Kellihers and several other passenger groups throughout the day, said Eddie Ogden, a public relations specialist and historian for Goodyear’s airship operations.
The company flies three blimps — which are technically not blimps but semi-rigid airships — and, aside from “customer work” like Wednesday’s trips, the crews also fly out to cover sporting events and other assignments for major television networks, Ogden said. When Wingfoot Three passed through Frederick last week, it was headed first to the Syracuse-Clemson game in New York on Saturday, followed by the Monday Night Football game between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Ogden said.
“When we go home from here tomorrow, our next assignment is Friday night when the Indians play on ESPN. And then we’re doing some more customers in Akron,” Ogden said.
Erik Yates, a director of curriculum development for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, was also invited to fly with the Kellihers to further his work on a program the AOPA is rolling out to high schools across the country.
“It’s a four-year program where high schools can adopt our curriculum that starts in ninth grade where the kids have two semesters of learning about aviation, the history of aviation, what careers are there in aviation. And then in 10th grade they can learn more about the hard-core science and math in aviation, the systems of the airplane,” Yates said.
As the program progresses, students are given the opportunity to take part in internships and even more advanced classes, including becoming certified drone operators, Yates said. The AOPA is still writing the curriculum for senior-year students, but some schools around the country have adopted and implemented the program for ninth through 11th grades, Yates added. While no schools offer the program in Frederick County, the association has met with Frederick County Public Schools about the opportunity, Yates said.
At the front of the airship, Patrick Kelliher chatted amiably with Jerry Hissem, chief pilot for Wingfoot One, while the rest of the group spoke with senior pilot Joe Erbs back in the main cabin. While Kelliher was interested to learn more about the changes that have taken place in airship technology since his last flight, Hissem was just as eager to hear Kelliher’s stories.
“Our mission was surveillance for enemy warships on the coast, so we tracked submarines after we would pick them up on magnetic detection gear and drop dye markers over them to make a circle and hopefully we’d catch them going out of the circle,” Patrick Kelliher said. “And every once in a while we’d drop a hand grenade so that the sub knew that they took a hit.”