Uh, that’s not a car! Isn’t this still TopGear.com?
Don’t adjust your sets, folks. Indeed, this is still TopGear.com and you’re right, the device you see in front of you has far fewer wheels than the stuff we usually fill our time with.
But when Goodyear asked us if we wanted to ride a hot air balloon high above the world’s most famous endurance race, we hardly said ‘no’, did we?
Good point! Uh, how are you… are you?
Never been asked about the intricacies of a hot air balloon before, right? The Goodyear Blimp is powered by a trio of four-cylinder engines, each rated at 200 horsepower: one on each side and another at the rear. Each has its own fuel tank and can hold up to 825kg of Avgas, the same stuff you find in any aircraft with an internal combustion engine.
The side motors can be rotated to give you lift during takeoff and forward thrust during flight, while a pair of propellers at the rear can push the balloon up or down, or spin it on the spot like a helicopter.
However, this is not what keeps the hot air balloon in the air. With a length of 75 m, a width of 19.5 m and a height of 17.4 m, the envelope (that is the technical term for the balloon bit) has a volume of 8,425 m cubic meters. Or to use a metaphor, more than three Olympic swimming pools. There’s a semi-rigid, internal skeleton made of aluminum and carbon fiber trusses, but it’s mostly pressurized helium there.
There’s also a large water tank under the cabin (called the gondola) so the pilots can shed ballast when needed, and an inflatable airbag on both ends of the envelope that gives precise control of the field by pushing the helium around.
That’s more complicated than I expected.
Amazing isn’t it? Before boarding, we had envisioned a suppository hot air balloon with a couple of fans on the sides, but no. The Goodyear Blimp is a complex machine and the cockpit is as dense with screens and buttons as you would expect in a commercial jet.
All the controls are modern, fly-by-wire aviation instruments, which is somehow quite comforting and at the same time unnerving. Foreign.
In any case, the hot air balloon does not quite reach the speeds of Boeing or Airbus. Its top speed is a staggering 77 mph, and while it can reach an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, most flights stick to around 1,000 feet. Makes it easier to see the mahoosive brand logo from below.
Cool. How are things on board?
A real novelty, actually: part private jet, part ski lift. Passengers stand two by two on the ground as the hot air balloon lands, with ground crew holding up a portable windsock to measure wind direction. There is a one-time policy when you board so that the weight doesn’t fluctuate too much as the hot air balloon soars above the ground, and seats inside for 14 passengers. Plus the two pilots of course.
There are life jackets under all seats, but the safety briefing takes place beforehand, so you don’t have to say ‘your exits are here and here’ once you’re comfortable. Also no snack truck.
The seat belts are on as the hot air balloon climbs to its target height, but this will only take a matter of moments and then you will be free to move around the gondola. And because you’re still relatively close to the ground, there’s no need to pressurize the cab, so you can enjoy panoramic views through a choice of open windows. The engines are also quite quiet. All very serene.
How is the handling? I mean, how’s the turbulence?
There is no. It never goes fast enough for that. And unlike a normal airplane you are also not subject to noticeable g-forces, with a limited amount of pitch and roll the only giveaways when you make a turn.
Sweet. Good view I assume?
Superb view. Our flight – the last of the day – departed shortly after 8pm, with the sun low on the horizon and the sky completely clear. By that evening the balloon was not allowed to cross the Circuit de la Sarthe, but we still got a great view of the cars making their way through the series of bends past the *cough* Dunlop *cough* chicane, plowing straight up the Mulsanne.
Let’s not forget that the circuit is over eight miles long, and it takes quite a while to get between all the different vantage points on foot. So being able to visually track the cars for more than a handful of seconds at a time is quite unique.
Did you stay there long?
In all about 25 minutes, although the Goodyear Blimp can stay in the air for longer. A lot longer actually: about 22 hours, although no pilot in the world is allowed to fly that long without some rest. But it’s nice to know that the airship will outlast its beefy payload. And it probably explains why there is a toilet on board.
Is there a toilet?!
Oh yeah. Nothing extravagant of course, just a small cubicle with a toilet and sink. And a window, so that you can continue to enjoy the spectacle with a penny.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to use it. We also didn’t ask what would happen to the, er, waste once it was deposited. But given how careful the hot air balloon has to handle ballast, we don’t think it will be tossed overboard. You are safe, Earthlings.
Tell me about countries.
As we mentioned, the pilots depend on a small team of ground crews to facilitate the landing, with the hot air balloon always making its final approach directly into the wind. Once done for the day, the hot air balloon’s nose is attached to a faucet and one is given the unenviable task of sleeping in it for the night. Because how screwed would you be if it somehow came off?
Terribly! How much is it?
Clamp! Clamp! No, the hot air balloon does not go down, you may not expect the size of the price tag. For your own Goodyear Blimp you are looking at a figure of over €20 million, roughly £17.2 million given current exchange rates.
And that’s before you factor in the cost of crew, maintenance, transportation, fuel and a large amount of helium. A small part of it escapes daily. You also need a large field to hold it in. A helipad will unfortunately not make it.
But if you’re endowed with land and money, blimping is a great way to spend an evening. Less to get by. As TG proved conclusively, many, many years ago.