​The next generation of Goodyear blimps

"We call that the picture window because everybody sits back there and takes pictures," said Dougherty. "It's a beautiful view. There's nothing else like it in aviation. It's really unique."

Gone are the old manual flight controls, replaced with joysticks that operate the airship electronically.

So, is it easy to fly? "It's different to fly, yeah," said Dougherty. "It's not physically challenging, and once you get the concepts now, it's not so bad to fly."

Goodyear is building three of the new NT models at a massive hanger in Akron, Ohio. Each is being assembled piece by piece, from parts sent over from a zeppelin company in Germany.

The U.S. Navy dirigible Akron over San Francisco in 1932. AP

Although we know Goodyear mainly for its tires, the company has actually been in the blimp business most of its corporate life.

Eddie Ogden, Goodyear's airship historian, took Cowan on a tour of what he called "our 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' room!" In it are the remnants of a company so trusted in early aeronautics it was put under contract to build airships for the U.S. Navy. Amelia Earhart even christened one of them.

Its most famous were the USS Akron and the USS Macon -- floating aircraft carriers that were as big as ocean liners.

"They could look out over the horizon," said Ogden. "There was no radar looking over the horizon. There was no satellites. They were also very valuable for spotting submarines."

Passengers soon found airships a luxurious way to cross the Atlantic. It was hailed as the future of air travel. But the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, brought an end to it all. Eventually, even the military had little use for airships.

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But Goodyear found a new purpose for its floating billboards: Camera platforms. And the cameras back then were huge -- and heavy.

The first blimp-cast was the Rose Parade in 1955. Those aerial images redefined the way we saw major events, says Goodyear's Scott Baughman: "It was incredibly revolutionary, and the technology at the time was being developed as we needed it."

"You were kind of making it up as you went?" asked Cowan.

"We were discovering it as we went, absolutely."

Today Goodyear airships remain the most recognizable eye in the sky above major sporting events, especially college football.

Cowan spent six hours hovering above the Miami-Clemson game back in October. A Goodyear blimp will be watching over Clemson again tomorrow night, as they take on Alabama for the College Football National Championship.

For chief pilot Jerry Hissem it's as good as it gets.

Cowan asked, "Does it ever get a little tedious just going around a stadium over and over?"

"No," replied Hissem. "I could go fly for another eight hours. It's fun!"

There's just one of the old models left: The Spirit of Innovation, based near Los Angeles -- the one that brought Alice Gratias back to Earth.

Her ride wasn't just a bucket-list moment; it was also her birthday present. "What a birthday!" she exclaimed.

What a birthday -- and what a machine.

Old or new, Goodyear's floating ambassador has both secured and preserved the low-and-slow style of flying -- an intimate, friendly way to get your head up in the clouds.

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