From the sky, the spectacular views offered by the Goodyear blimp have never felt routine to Jerry Hissem even though the Ohio State graduate has spent about 8,000 hours piloting the famous airship in the past 24 years.
“It’s like riding on a magic carpet,” he says.
Hissem takes the most delight in one particular sight in his role as chief pilot for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company: the expressions of passengers flying with him.
“The smiles are the best part about doing this,” Hissem says. “When people show up for a ride, they’re happy, and I’m happy for them, because it’s special. I find joy in their joy. I love this job. It’s really about the people and the special connections we make.”
Those memorable connections with passengers are made by only 11 blimp pilots stationed at three national locations for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, and two of those 11 pilots are Buckeyes.
“We love flying together because we have a shared history with Ohio State,” says Joe Erbs, an Ohio State graduate.
As Hissem’s co-pilot, Erbs shares the same appreciation for what he’s providing others in his role as blimp captain whenever the airship lifts off from its base in Suffield, Ohio, near Akron.
“You see the look of awe and wonder in people’s eyes,” he says. “You’re giving somebody such a unique way to see the world go by. You’re making them happy, and it really makes you feel like you’re impacting people’s lives.”
Sometimes the impact can be viewed far down below from the blimp’s typical cruising altitude of 1,000 to 1,200 feet.
“You’ll see people pull over to the side of the road just to watch us fly by,” Erbs says. “They’ll be taking pictures to share with their friends to say, ‘Oh, I saw the blimp.’ It really makes you feel good inside.”
The idea of spreading joy as blimp pilots didn’t occur to either of the two Buckeyes when they were earning their undergraduate degrees at Ohio State.
“Nobody goes anywhere to become a blimp pilot — it just kind of happens,” says Erbs, who was an Air Force ROTC student.
Still, both Buckeyes credit Ohio State for providing the training and opportunities — and a sense that all pathways are open to seek career possibilities — that led to their unique jobs, which require people skills as well as the aviation knowledge to meet the challenging intricacies of piloting a 246-foot helium-filled airship.
“Everything I learned at Ohio State, I use every day on my job,” says Hissem, who graduated in 1993 with a degree in aviation. “Ohio State gave me the basic skills and education to secure a great job like this.”
Hissem worked as a flight dispatcher at The Ohio State University Airport during his time as an undergraduate student, and he later taught flight lessons and aerodynamic classes at the university. He joined Goodyear as a mechanic in 1998, and the company made him a blimp pilot a year later.
Erbs earned his aviation degree in 1991 and then served 24 years in the Air Force as a pilot before a retirement itch to fly again led him to being hired by Goodyear in 2017. He’s reminded about where his career began every time he looks down to find his dorm or student apartment while flying the blimp over the Columbus campus.
“You name it, and Ohio State can offer it,” Erbs says. “It’s just a matter of finding what you love and pursuing it. The fact that Ohio State has a control-towered airport with a nice fleet of aircraft and instructors really enables people to pursue an aviation career, more so than they could at some other universities.”
Erbs and Hissem found what they love to do: not only being pilots, but also gracious hosts to the passengers, up to 10 per flight, who climb aboard the blimp’s gondola.
“Everybody’s a celebrity on the blimp,” Hissem says.
The two pilots crank up the three 200-horsepower propeller engines and their four cylinders on “Wingfoot One” and the airship slowly lifts into the sky, like floating in a bubble.
“It’s a bucket list item for so many people,” Erbs says. “They’ve always dreamed about someday being able to get on the blimp, and suddenly they find themselves on it. It’s really cool for them. I absolutely love it.”
And the love for the job is especially acute whenever the two pilots take the blimp to an Ohio State home football game.
“When you fly over Ohio Stadium and see the name Buckeyes in the end zone, that gives you chills,” Erbs says.
And then the Buckeyes make a big play or score a touchdown, and 1,000 feet over the Horseshoe, two pilots in a craft cruising 45 miles per hour have their own reasons to smile.
“To hear the roar of the crowd from the stadium filter up to the airship is just amazing,” Hissem says. “We can hear the fans doing O-H-I-O.”