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 1930's.
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
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.
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 advertising nightsign.
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
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 earlier.
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 it.
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
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
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
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 to win.
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 guys.
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 day!
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
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 chosen charity.
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 areas.
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 One