Memories of airship Europa in the skies

Forty years ago Julie and Steve Harris won a trip of a lifetime on the Goodyear blimp airship Europa.

Julie and Steve Harris won a flight on the Goodyear airship Europa at the annual Wolverhampton press ball
Julie and Steve Harris won a flight on the Goodyear airship Europa at the annual Wolverhampton press ball

The couple, from Pensnett, scooped the prize at the annual Wolverhampton Press Ball, which raised cash for various charities.

Back in 1980, the one and a quarter million pound blimp was a familiar shape in West Midland skies, making a number of visits and flying from the RAF Cosford airbase.

And the name Goodyear was synonymous with Wolverhampton as the city’s biggest employer and the place where fathers and sons worked side by side making tyres for cars, trucks, tractors and Formula 1 racing teams.

The great appeal of airships was their sedate glamour and they also allowed superb aerial coverage of sporting events such as the British Grand Prix and the FA Cup final at Wembley.

When the Goodyear airship Europa was launched from Cardington in Bedfordshire in 1972, this was planned to be one of its uses.

It had been constructed after the Goodyear Corporation initiated a $5 million expansion programme for its airship operation.

Goodyear blimps first graced the skies in 1925 and a decision was made in 1971 that a new ship was needed for public relations operations based in Europe.

Stationed just outside Rome, it was to be the fourth in a new fleet with the others based in Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.

Europa flying over the Goodyear factory in Wolverhampton in July 1972

Components for the new ship were created in Akron, Ohio, the base of Goodyear operations for many decades, and flown over to Cardington to be assembled.

The first test flight proved unsuccessful after the ship tore away from its mast, and the envelope deflated.

After repairs and further tests were carried out, it was finally ready to be launched and among its first official duties was coverage of the Munich Olympics.

The airship carried six passengers and had a top speed of 50mph and a maximum flying height of 7,500 feet.

During its flights, Europa became known for flashing messages for good causes from the lighted sign belt around her length

According to The Airship Heritage Trust, by January 1975 the Europa had flown some 4,000 hours and carried more than 20,000 passengers since its first flight.

It was used for many private commissions, including being an aerial TV platform for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Europa cruises over Albrighton and the A41 bypass in 1972

In 1986, it returned to the UK for a summer tour of the country and part of the visit was spent at Birmingham International Airport, when invited guests, including a number of civic dignitaries, enjoyed a special flight.

Among the events visited by the airship were the FA Cup Final at Wembley on May 10, and the Wimbledon tennis championships at the end of June.

During its busy summer, Europa also visited the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch on July 13, where it provided the aerial TV camera platform, and the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey on July 23.

But in November 1986, Goodyear announced plans to retire the Europa, its “aerial ambassador’’, and sell the airship’s base in Capena, near Rome, to save costs.

Unfortunately, Europa wasn’t to have a quiet retirement. The Airship Heritage Trust reports that the same year the ship was chartered by the BBC for wildlife filming in the Carmague region of Southern France.

When 40,000 people packed into West Park, Wolverhampton, in June 1977, for the town's Fiesta carnival day, E&S photographer Ken Wood captured this birds-eye view from Europa

During this time the ship was caught by a down-draught in freak torrential rain, and driven on to marshes and wrecked. The ship was eventually recovered and the Europa control car and envelope deflated were returned to the Akron, Ohio, and placed in to storage.

The trust says that airships never die as parts have a tendency to be reused.

The Europa control car was rebuilt over a period of years and in 1998 it was returned in to service on a new ship named “Stars and Stripes” Goodyear model N1A.

But the Airship Heritage Trust say the Europa will always be seen as the return of lighter-than-air craft to the UK.

Today Goodyear’s fleet of modern airships are still going strong and it has bases Akron, Ohio; Pompano Beach, Florida; and Carson, California.

The blimps include Wingfoot One which was launched in 2014 and has provided aerial coverage of numerous events, including the NBA Finals, the Daytona 500, the Stanley Cup Finals, the PGA Championship.

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