is what happened on Saturday 5th July 1986, when four airships
raced around Manhattan and New York State.
The date was chosen
as it was also the centenary celebrations of the Statue
of Liberty. The weekend of events held in New York were
also to coincide with the refurbished statue.
The race was billed
as the first if it's kind in the history of aviation, although
the organisers seemed to have overlooked that lighter than
air and balloon racing had been going on for many decades
before this. However, this time it would be airships which
would have the fun.
A press conference was
held at 10:00am on tuesday 3rd June, and in the Observation
Tower of the Empire State Building.Again this was a nod
to the perceived idea that the Empire State Building was
looked to be used as a mooring mast for airships, despite
a couple of attempts, this was not to be the case in the
Sponsored by the Daily News, the press were ushered in to
meet the Captains of the airships who were in the race.
Details were outlined of the concept, idea, indeed the rules
of the race.
The idea being to raise
awareness of the airships, promoters and sponsors, but also
award a prize of $25,000 ($62,000 2022) from Citibank, to
the winners chosen charity.
Of the fifteen in the
world at the time, four ships were to be competing in the
race, with a fifth used as a filming platform.
Alfred (Corky) Belanger
William J Boughton
for New York Daily News
*The Skyship 600 SK600-04
was the fastest airship in the Airship Industries fleet
at the time, but not allowed to participate in the race,
as the SK 600-03 was heavier as it was carrying an illuminating
The Resorts International
airship, SK 600-03 was the first of the SK 600 class to
fly in the United States, on 11th July 1985.
A twelve mile course
was devised to test the airship speed and pilots skills.
The airships would leave
New York harbor heading south on a FAA approved flight plan.
They proceeded on a course due south over Staten Island
to Keensburgh, New Jersey. Following the Jersey shore, south
to Ashbury Park where the formation will make a 180 degree
turn north on a course that took them past the beaches of
Sandy Hook, and Coney Island.
The route took them
east, past the Rockaways to Jones Beach. As the airships
hovered over Jones Beach, they were saluted by the New York
Pop's Orchestra lead by Stich Henderson. Stich, who was
deemed the Grand Marshall of the race, composed a special
symphony entitled "Blimphony" for the occasion.
The 85 piece orchestra entertained beachgoers and spectators.
Turning north west from
the beaches, across Long Island, and not far from Mineola
where the first airship, the R 34 touched down making the
first east west crossing of the Atlantic, some 67 years
The route then turned
them eastwards down Long Island Sound, over the Bronx, and
back over the George Washington Bridge.
The final stretch of
the race was down the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan,
to the Statue of Liberty.
Starting at 4:00pm when
the airships rendezvoused over the George Washington Bridge
at an altitude of 1,000ft. A 50 year old de Havilland Gypsy
Moth biplane flew across the the front of the airships bows,
trailing a banner to signal the start of the race.
The McDonald's WDL airship
first took the lead, however this didn't last very long
as both the Fuji SK 500-06 and the Resorts SK600-03 overtook
Fuji's SK 500-06 won
with a time of 15 minutes and 36 second, with the Resorts
SK600-03 in as second. This was a very good performance
of the ship, considering it was carying extra weight of
the lightup nightsign. The WDL McDonald's ship came in third..
According to the New York Times recap that day, The
Citibank dirigible, moving at a bank-line pace of 17 minutes
16 seconds, brought up the rear", however this
is an unfair comment not to do with the speed of the ship,
but it was flown the race with one of it's propellors having
The following personal
account is a reflection of the day from Rod Burgess, who
was the co-pilot of SK500-3 the "Citibank" airship.
was Peter Buckleys co-pilot on SK500-03 / G-SKSA,
the Citibank Blimp that day. It was quite a
day. We were operating out of Republic Field (KFRG), Farmingdale,
NY, out on Long Island, and the ship was doing about three
weeks of exposure flying around New York City,
showing the advertising banners to the public.
days before, on 23 June, Id passed my Civil Aviation
Authority General Flying Test to qualify as an airship pilot,
having joined Airship Industries that spring at Cardington.
Peter was our Chief Pilot and Manager of Flight Ops. Since
no CAA examiner was airship-qualified, Peter actually sat
in the right-hand seat and ran the test, with Capt John
Sweet, the examiner standing behind us making sure everything
was done properly.
I remember John turning up in full uniform, complete with
hat and collar-and-tie despite the fact that the temperature
in the gondola used to get up to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit
in the summer.
knew we were at a disadvantage for the race. As you can
see in the photographs, SA was of the original design
for the SKS 500, with the blunt tail. Both Fuji
(SK500-06 / SH) and all the SKS 600 models had a more
streamlined, pointed tail. Fujis advertising was painted
directly onto the envelope, whereas the rest of us had fabric
banners stretched along the sides and Resorts
had the illuminated night-sign, which added weight and drag.
The banners tended to ripple and flap in the airflow, causing
drag. We didnt know quite what to expect of the WDL-built
McDonalds and Corkys mount was
a bit of a dark horse. All-in-all, Fuji was the favourite
Peter had a plan! The night before, the boss
persuaded the engineers to tweak the blade angles on Citibanks
propellers, hoping to squeeze a knot or two extra out of
the old girl.
cruising speed for both the 600 and 500 was 30 kt and the
flight manual top speed was 50 kt for both. But airships,
even more than fixed-wing aeroplanes, each have their own
peculiarities and no two apparently identical ships will
achieve the same speed at the same loading and power setting.
Peter reckoned we might just be able to surprise the other
the day of the parade and the Great Blimp Race, we were
up over New York Harbor good and early. The harbour was
crammed with vessels of every size, shape and variety. I
remember one heart-stopping moment: just as we passed quite
low over an immense US Navy battleship, she fired a salute.
Peter nearly leapt out of his skin.
just fired a salute I replied.
[expletive] for that. I thought wed burst a ballonet!
Now that would have been entertaining.
the other airships gathered, Peter acted as commodore of
the gaggle. He led the five ships around the parade route
in line astern. A close look at the map will show that we
flew barely outside the perimeter fence of JFK International.
I reckon we passed about 2 miles south of the control tower
not above one thousand feet at ATC instruction.
turning inshore over Jones Beach, we headed NW across Nassau
County, a little west of the red line planned and shown
on the map. Approaching the vicinity of La Guardia airport,
I was stunned to have the Tower controller suggest that
we bring the whole fleet directly over the field on our
way to join the Hudson River.
due to a slight misunderstanding, Peter declined the offer
and we passed just outside the airports NE boundary.
Somehow, I cant imagine many other international airports
letting a bunch of slow-moving, wallowing airships within
a country mile of them the way both New Yorkers did that
so, to the final act the Great Blimp Race itself.
It took a bit of wriggling and squirming to get the four
participants properly lined up over the George Washington
Bridge but we finally managed it. And then we were off!
The course was almost a straight line down the Hudson from
the GW to New York Harbour and the finishing
line was a line of sight from Battery Park to the torch
held by Lady Liberty.
sooner had we started than it became clear that Peters
propeller tweak was not going to give us an edge. In fact,
the props didnt like it at all and, if anything, SA
was not even achieving the speeds we normally saw. With
the engines at max throttle, we watched the rest of the
field steadily drawing away from us. Oh, the shame of it!
Last place. Im sure the official times are more accurate
but my log book shows that Fuji took 15:20 to complete the
course and we took 17:00. The ship was airborne continuously
for 10 hours, 30 minutes and we covered an estimated 200
nm in that time.
have a great many fantastic memories of my time flying airships
in Britain, Europe and the USA but I can honestly say that
the day of the Great Blimp Race is a very special one.
The winning team were
presented with a 2ft long airship trophy from James Hodge,
the publisher of the Daily News, and a cheque for $25,000,
which was passed to the Boys' Clubs of America as their
Once the race was over,
all five airships circled the Statue of Liberty before returning
to their local operational fields in the New York State
you know, there were seven?
Out of a total of fifteen
airships in the world in 1986, there were seven airships
seen over New York over the celebratory weekend. The other
two airships were both Goodyear Aerospace GZ20 class ships,
one named Enterprise (N1A) and America (N3A). Goodyear had
ordered the crews not to participate in the race.
At the time the Navy
contract for a large non rigid patrol airship had not been
finanized and Goodyear Aerospace didn't want the risk of
coming second to a Skyship, to tarnish their image.
According to pilot
Trevor Hunt in the SK 500-06 confirmed that the Goodyear
pilots had been told to stay away from the Fuji liveried
ship, in Long Beach, after our camera crew filmed them slowly
overtaking them. Hunt commented that the best part was,
that he was filmed re-starting the port engine, and then
left them standing.
Did you see the race?
Were you there at the celebratory events that weekend? If
you have any photo's or recollections please share
them with us.
A second New York Blimp
race was organised on Indepencence Day, 4th July 2011, where
three airships were used:
Lighship A170LS - DirectTV
Lightship A60+ Horizon Blue Cross Shield Sponsorship
Lightship A60+ Hangar One Vodka Sponsorship
Again the route was
a race down the Hudson river and around the Statue of Liberty.
The winner was Hangar