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Blimps used to stop in SLO in the ’70s — and a lucky few got to take a ride

Ground crew helps control Goodyear blimp Columbia, after landing at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport in August 1975.
Ground crew helps control Goodyear blimp Columbia, after landing at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport in August 1975. The Tribune

When it comes to blimps, San Luis County is considered flyover country.

The aerial vehicles are often seen overhead, commuting to the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

At one time, tire manufacturer Goodyear had the only blimp fleet in operation — but, according to one advertising blimp operator, there are currently between 20 to 25 blimps worldwide.

The Van Wagner Airship Group that operates eight of the roughly 13 active advertising blimps in the world, including the MetLife and Directv blimps.

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Goodyear blimp pilot Tom Matus points out the view from the gondola. Jay Martinez The Tribune

Goodyear made several stops at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport back in the 1970s, when the airfield was less busy.

In March 3, 1976, the airship Columbia landed due to heavy rain, gusty winds and freezing temperatures.

The ground crew ran afoul of water quality officials when they dumped 50 gallons of fuel in a nearby irrigation ditch.

It was a happier trip the year before, when the same blimp came to town for for several days. It was such a big deal that the Telegram-Tribune published stories on two consecutive days.

Bob Anderson wrote about the airship taking off on Aug. 12, 1975.

“As the ground crew lines up the ship and lets go, the engines buzz, the ship’s nose points upward,” Anderson wrote. “Passengers look up at nothing but sky for a few brief moments. When the blimp levels off, a neophyte rider is surprised to find how high he is above the ground in so short a time, with so little sensation.”

A shorter story without a byline ran the day before, on August 11, 1975:

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Goodyear blimp Columbia is secured by ground crew in San Luis Obispo. Jay Martinez The Tribune

Blimp whirring over SLO

Sorry, folks. Goodyear would like to oblige, but the blimp only holds six at a time. No rides for the general public.

As almost anyone who was in San Luis Obispo over the weekend knows, one of the tire manufacturer’s blimps is visiting San Luis Obispo. It arrived Saturday from Santa Maria, on its way to Oakland to play its traditional role as backdrop for a football game.

The 192-foot airship Columbia is scheduled to leave Wednesday morning.

Ascending and descending as often as every half-hour Saturday and Sunday from the San Luis Obispo airport, the airborne billboard carried members of the news media and invited guests only.

Six passengers and the pilot ride in a gondola on the blimps underside.

On Saturday, a few persons who happened to be in the right place at the right time got to sample the thrill of lighter-than-air flight, but that seldom happens, a Goodyear spokesman said.

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A Goodyear blimp can be seen passing over San Luis Obispo in January 1977. It is framed by a Cal Poly light pole. The Tribune

The crowds milling by the airport fence, watching the Columbia’s dramatically steep takeoff, stand little chance of getting aboard.

The Columbia is Goodyear’s newest.

The helium-filled blimp was finished in Houston two weeks ago at a a cost of $2 million.

Its operational costs are figured at between $600 and $700 per hour, the company spokesman said. Twin propellers push the airship at a cruising speed of 35 mph, at a normal altitude of 1,000 to 3,000 feet. Top speed is 50 mph.

Los Angeles is to be home for the Columbia. Goodyear once tried giving rides to the public there, but even for several dollars a ride, the response overwhelmed the company, the spokesman said. Only at a base in Florida are rides “occasionally” sold, he said.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp
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