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160-Footer Available for Advertising : Oregon Blimp Builders Create 'Skytalk'

February 07, 1988|BARNEY LERTEN | United Press International

TILLAMOOK, Ore. — Move over, Goodyear and Fuji: An Oregon-built blimp is about to enter the competition for some of that advertising space in the sky above America's football stadiums.

Aerotek Inc. of Boston has unveiled the 160-foot-long Skytalk, built at an old Navy blimp base in the coastal town of Tillamook.

Company officials say it is the first American-designed airship in 50 years--and the first U.S. blimp available for advertising.

They had hoped to fly the craft to San Diego to make its debut carrying advertising at the Super Bowl, but storm damage delayed the final flight test and forced cancellation. After 52 hours of flight-testing, the Skytalk has received experimental certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's the best handling, most efficient airship in the world, and it's among the very fastest," said Joel Goodfader, president of an Aerotek's Skytalk subsidiary. "It features the largest (advertising) display surface in the sky."

Dick Widdicomb, former head of the Goodyear airship program, will be chief pilot of the Skytalk, which he calls "the Ferrari of airships." It is capable of 70 m.p.h. and, unlike other blimps, is steered by stick, like a helicopter, instead of by pedals and wheels. It also uses an aviation engine, rather than automotive motors.

Goodfader envisions a fleet of Skytalks displaying ads over cities on a fiber-optic night sign still being developed. Meanwhile, the first blimp will use large ad banners.

Aerotek is one of two companies making blimps in the old hangar in Tillamook. The building, which covers 7 acres, was built by the Navy to house the blimps that patrolled over the West Coast during World War II.

The other company, AeroLift, has developed an industrial blimp, the Cyclo-Crane, for moving logs and other cargo.

"Tillamook is the lighter-than-air capital of the world," said Larry Mahaffey, president of AeroLift.

The fire-prone, hydrogen-filled airships of the 1930s have given way to safer, helium-filled craft. Fewer than 20 blimps exist today, most notably the Goodyear and Fuji blimps that serve as aerial camera platforms at football games.

They are impractical for other uses, it was assumed until now.

The new blimp builders say their airships have many potential uses, such as advertising in the sky, environmental patrols, aerial hauling and defense applications.

"Blimps can play a crucial role in cleaning up the environment," Goodfader said. He called airships "the ideal means to monitor coastal waters for the illegal dumping of pollutants." His firm has been talking with New Jersey officials about doing just that, perhaps this summer.

While Aerotek's blimp is ready for work, AeroLift's more unusual airship is still under development. The Defense Department recently awarded AeroLift $5 million to design a device that could be used to unload troop support ships, said Mahaffey.

The Cyclo-Crane rotates at 13 revolutions a minute, allowing airflow over small wings that provides the needed lift for maneuvering.

AeroLift's first effort to build a hybrid air tractor for Canadian logging and the U.S. Forest Service suffered a major setback when the prototype was destroyed in an October, 1982, windstorm. A new craft capable of lifting 2 tons has undergone extensive testing and larger variations are on the drawing boards.

A prototype of one of AeroLift's competitors, the HeliStat, crashed in New Jersey in 1986. The pilot was killed and the Forest Service pulled back from testing such devices.

"Commercial applications are still our highest priority," Mahaffey said, "however, particularly with the stock market like it is, we can't get additional money to continue with purely commercial development."

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