In the Beginning
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's Wingfoot Lake Airship Base, sometimes called "The Kitty Hawk of Lighter-Than-Air," is the oldest airship base in the United States.
Goodyear entered the fledgling aviation industry when it established its Aeronautics Department in 1910 to market rubber impregnated fabrics and coatings for airplanes and lighter-than-air craft. Goodyear built its first balloon in 1912 and the next year began a long history of building and flying balloons in national and international competition.
In 1916, Goodyear bought 720 acres of land southeast of Akron to serve as a flying field and manufacturing site. It included Fritch's Lake which provided water power for a grist mill and a water reserve for factories several miles downstream. Situated on the property was one of the original homes in Portage County, a log cabin built in 1845 by Abraham Himebaugh. The facility and the lake itself took on a new identity from Goodyear's winged foot corporate emblem.
World War I
Construction of the big hangar started in March 1917. The initial structure was 100 ft. wide, 90 ft. high, and 200 ft. long. Its length was doubled to 400 ft. almost immediately.
Airship production also started in March 1917 when the Navy ordered 16 B-type airships: nine from Goodyear, five from Goodrich, and two from Connecticut Aircraft. Since the hangar at Wingfoot Lake (WFL) was not ready, the B-1 was erected in a large amusement park building in Chicago. It first flew on 24 May 1917. Five days later, it was flown non-stop to within a few miles of WFL. The B-2, also erected in Chicago, soon joined the B-1 as a training ship at Wingfoot Lake.
The Navy ordered 15 (later reduced to ten) C-type airships in 1918. Goodyear erected the C-1 at WFL. It was flown to the Navy facility at Rockaway, Long Island, NY, via Washington DC, on 22 October. The C-2 was used as a trainer at WFL. Most of the B- and C-ships built by Goodyear were shipped to the Navy for final assembly and flight testing.
Constructed Hangar WFL was the training site of the first class of Navy airship pilots. With Goodyear personnel as instructors, some 600 Army and Navy officers and enlisted men were trained to fly and maintain B- and C-type airships, kite (observation) balloons and free balloons. The Navy took over the facility and operated it as a US Naval Airship Training Station from 1917 through 1921. It served as a construction, test and development base and consisted of twenty-six buildings by the end of WWI. The first Commanding Officer was LT (later CDR) Lewis H. Maxfield, The last CO was LCDR Zachary Lansdowne.
Between The Wars
In June 1919, Goodyear started operating its own airships. It built the Wingfoot Express and three Pony Blimps. One of the latter was destroyed along with the Navy D-1 in a hangar fire at WFL on 19 July 1920. Both ships were inflated with hydrogen, the common lifting gas of the time.
Goodyear continued to furnish envelopes for Army and Navy airships and erected several D-type ships, as well as one each of the E-, F-, H-, and J-type ships. The A-121 (AC-1) was one of 26 ships built at WFL for the Army. Free balloons were built for both the military and Goodyear as long-distance racing events challenged pilot skills and technology.
Goodyear built and operated the first U.S. commercially licensed blimp in 1925. The single-engine Pilgrim was helium inflated. Next came the 86,000 cu. ft. twin-engine TZ-type blimp Puritan in 1928. It would be the prototype for a Goodyear fleet. The Volunteer, Mayflower, and Vigilant were built in 1929 and the Neponset in 1930. The larger Defender was built in late 1929. The fleet ships Columbia, Reliance and Resolute were built with 112,000 cu. ft. envelopes in '31 and '32. The other ships were gradually fitted with new larger envelopes. The Enterprise introduced the 123,000 cu. ft. envelope in '34. Other ships were eventually increased to this size, as were the new ships Rainbow ('39), Ranger ('40) and the replacement Ranger ('42) that went directly to the Navy as the L-8.
The fleet barnstormed over 42 states, training pilots and crewmen as well as developing operating procedures and techniques. The expeditionary mast and other support equipment were defined and refined. Engineering and manufacturing staffs grew in their skills and an immense knowledge was gained of airship capabilities.
U.S. Navy blimp K-3Goodyear expanded its Aeronautical Department, then formed the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation to build giant rigid airships for the U.S. Navy. The airships USS Akron and USS Macon were built from 1929 to 1933 in the Akron Airdock located six miles to the west. Several of the Goodyear pilots who were Naval Reserve officers trained aboard these giant airships.
The Defender was sold to the Navy in 1935 and designated G-1. The L-1, a Navy version of the Goodyear TZ-123000, was delivered in 1938. The L-2 was delivered in February '41; the L-3 in June '41.
The K-2 was erected by WFL personnel at the Akron Airdock in 1938. Four K-ships would be erected at WFL in 1941. From 1917 through late 1941, over 100 airships were erected and flown at Wingfoot Lake. (This included new and modified or repaired airships.)
World War II
After Pearl Harbor, four ships in the Goodyear fleet were transferred directly to the Navy, one with its entire staff of pilots and crewmen. The Resolute patrolled Los Angeles Harbor in 1941 prior to being officially transferred to the Navy.
The WFL hangar was lengthened to 800 feet in 1942, making room for three K-ships. Goodyear's small hangar was moved from the east coast to WFL that same year for the L- and G-ship assembly.
From 1942 through 1944, 104 Navy airships were erected at WFL and flown to NAS Lakehurst. In addition, Goodyear erected 44 ships at Moffett Field and four M-ships at the Akron Airdock.
Envelope of K-32 Prompted, perhaps, by the loss of former Goodyear pilot LT Frank Trotter one of twelve who died in the G-1 and L-2 accident in June 1942 a memorial plaque was dedicated at WFL the next summer. It is for "...the Navy officers trained at Wingfoot Lake who gave their lives in the course of airship development..." Maxfield and Lansdowne are included among the nine men listed on the plaque.
Post World War II
Goodyear resumed its fleet operations with the purchase of seven L-ships and six K-ships from the Government. During 1946 and '47, the Ranger, Volunteer, Enterprise, and Mayflower were put into service, then the larger Puritan (the former K-28). The neon night sign panels were replaced by incandescent light panels on the TZs. The K was equipped with an incandescent grid for a running sign.
The facility also converted to peace-time manufacturing, producing helicopter tail cones, aluminum storm doors, tow targets for training Navy fighter pilots, and radar microwave components. Hundreds of Bell TD2/TH telephone transmission antennas were built in WFL's shops.
U.S. Navy G-shipThe Goodyear GA-22 Duck amphibian airplanes operated from the field and lake.The GA-33 Inflatoplane prototype began test flights in December 1955.The Army Inflatotplanes were test flown and their pilots trained at WFL.Gizmo, Goodyear's entry into the military one-man helicopter design competition was tested, modified, and retested. Figure balloons for the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade were also test flown here.
Goodyear built 40 airships for the Navy at the Airdock following WWII. The last was a 1,465,000 cu. ft. ZPG-3W, the largest non-rigid airship ever flown, delivered to Lakehurst on 4 April 1960.
The Naval Reserve ZP2K-42, assigned to Squadron ZP-651, was based at WFL for a time in the early 1950s. From 1949 to '55 employment grew to an all-time high of 700 while Goodyear was building 2K, 3K, and 4K control cars for the Navy. Fifteen 4K airships were erected, tested, and delivered to the navy from WFL.
In the late '50s, activities settled back to supporting the Goodyear blimp fleet operations, plus radar microwave component development, testing and production. WFL became the most complete radar test facility in the U.S. with 17 separate range sites and the lake as a huge reflector. The name was changed to Wingfoot Lake Test Operations in 1962. Goodyear also tested Vee-Balloons it developed for logging and other uses.
Debut of new Mayflower and Columbia Major test facilities included: a Ballistics Range for testing helicopter armor; the Cryogenics Remote Area Test Site for conducting hazardous test involving liquid hydrogen and high pressures; the Underwater Acoustics Measurement lab to study the propagation of sound energy through a variety of materials while submerged; an Electric arc-Heated Wind Tunnel for evaluating candidate space materials under simulated re-entry conditions; and Electromagnetics Lab; and the Fuel Cell Test Site where aviation and other fuel tanks were tested for impact and bulletproof characteristics.
WFL continued to maintain the Goodyear fleet through the '50 and '60s. The "new age" for Goodyear ships began in 1959 with the GZ-19 Mayflower which incorporated major car and power plant changes and a 132,000 cu. ft. envelope. It was enlarged to 147,300 cu. ft. (GZ-19A type) in 1963 and a new Columbia was built. The "Skytacular" four-color running night sign was developed at WFL and made its debut on the Mayflower at Indy 500 in 1966.
The sign was so successful that the larger GZ-20 airship was designed and certified with more powerful engines and a new envelope size of 202,700 cu. ft. to display the "Super-Skytacular" sign. Two ships were built in 1969, the America and Columbia. The Europa was erected by WFL personnel in Cardington, England, in 1972 to cover the UK and Western Europe from a base established near Rome.
The WFL base was closed in 1972 and placed in "caretaker" status. Four of the remaining five WWI frame buildings west of the hangar were burned as training exercises for nearby rural volunteer fire departments. Goodyear airships were maintained at the new hangar in Spring, Texas.
Beginning in 1974, Goodyear Aerospace Corp. used the south third of the main hangar for development of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. This continued until the Department of Energy canceled the program in 1985.
Almost all the secondary buildings -- including the small hangar, log cabin, barracks and water tower -- have been removed. Still remaining are an original manufacturing structure, the "oil house" for storing flammables, built just prior to WWII, and the shop building now connected to the hangar and housing the airship night sign and TV labs.
The WFL facility currently is dedicated to Goodyear Airship Operations. The corporate airship flight operations offices and supporting shops are all located in the main hangar. It is also the home base for the Spirit of Goodyear and the support facility for the Spirit of America, based at Carson, California, and the Spirit of Innovation, based at Pompano Beach, Florida.
Goodyear erected more than 347 airships of all types from 1917 through 1995. Of these, over 239 were erected at the Wingfoot Lake Airship Base.