Nothing Says Welcome Home like the Goodyear Blimp

Posted on Fri, July 26, 2019
  • by: Tom Paone
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The sight of the Goodyear Blimp overhead is often a sign of a major event occurring below. Goodyear blimps have provided overhead aerial views of all kinds of events, from Super Bowls and World Series to Rose Bowls and Olympic Games. The Goodyear C-49 airship control car currently on view at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was seen over the 1977, 1980, 1983, and 1985 Super Bowls; the 1981 and 1984 World Series; Rose Bowl games and parades; and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In September 1969, however, the Goodyear blimp would fly over an event honoring one of America’s newest heroes in the place where it all started: Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.

After spending a little over 21 hours on the Moon, astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" E. Aldrin Jr. lifted off the lunar surface in the ascent stage of the lunar module and rendezvoused with the command module Columbia and astronaut Michael Collins. The three astronauts returned to Earth on July 24 as heroes to the nation and many throughout the world. After spending 21 days in quarantine to ensure no lunar organisms had returned with the crew, the United States celebrated the returning heroes in the time-honored tradition reserved for such occasions: parades.

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering of ticker tape down Broadway and Park Avenue in a parade termed as the largest in the city's history. Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin "Buzz" E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot.

On August 13, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts were driven through the "canyon of heroes" in New York City. It was reported that a record tonnage of paper was dropped by enthusiastic citizens during the parade. They continued onto Chicago, where the received a similarly enthusiastic welcome by the people. The first week of September, however, brought about much more personal celebrations for the astronauts in the form of hometown celebrations. Michael Collins was welcomed home to New Orleans, which he had adopted as his hometown (he was born in Rome, Italy, where his father was on a military assignment). He was greeted by fireworks, a luncheon, and a parade featuring jazz music. Buzz Aldrin returned to Montclair, New Jersey, where nine bands and 15 floats welcomed him to the Buzz Aldrin Day parade and Montclair State College held an 800-person banquet in his honor. Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to step onto the lunar surface, returned to his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, 80 miles northwest of Columbus with a population of about 7,000 people.

Neil Armstrong riding in the Wapakoneta Homecoming Parade, September 6, 1969. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection (AV_203B2F5_029).

Although small in size, the town of Wapakoneta put on an oversized display for their hometown hero, capped with the Goodyear Blimp. The Los Angeles Times reported, "Auglaize St., the main street, was a mass of flags, of red, white and blue bunting, of banners proclaiming the pride of ‘Wapak’ (as it calls itself) in being the hometown of ‘the first man on the moon.’" Newspapers covering the event estimated that 80,000 people came to celebrate the success of the historic mission. Comedian Bob Hope was asked to serve as marshal for the parade, and guests included Ed McMahon of Tonight Show fame, Dr. Albert Sabin, who helped invent the oral polio vaccine, as well as Ohio governor James A. Rhodes and Indiana governor Edgar Whitcomb. The Los Angeles Times reported that Bob Hope introduced Armstrong to a large crowd at the Wapakoneta High School football stadium, bringing laughter when he stated, "Neil did the greatest thing that anybody has ever done—he put Wapakoneta on the map."

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company added to the celebration by sending the Goodyear Blimp to fly over the event. The Goodyear Company was founded and headquartered in Akron, Ohio, only 170 miles east of Wapakoneta, and were eager to celebrate the accomplishments of a native Ohioan. The blimp, named Columbia (a previous Columbia to the Museum’s control car), hovered above downtown Wapakoneta, and was photographed by numerous visitors to the parade.

The Goodyear blimp sailing over downtown Wapakoneta, Ohio, during the homecoming parade for Neil Armstrong on September 6, 1969. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection (AV_203B2F5_034)

The logbook entry for the Goodyear blimp Columbia specifically highlights taking part in the Neil Armstrong parade, showcasing the pride the company took in celebrating the accomplishments of Armstrong and the Apollo program that day. The Bryan Times reported that a volunteer worker for the parade named Mrs. Maurice Howe stated, "We used to say we lived 90 miles from Toledo but now people can pronounce the name of our town. Maybe Toledo people will start telling everyone they live 90 miles from Wapakoneta." The Goodyear blimp even carried commemorative postal envelopes that day to celebrate its part in the Neil Armstrong homecoming. The envelope, proudly postmarked from Wapakoneta, Ohio, features a graphic showing the both the Goodyear blimp Columbia, as well as the command module Columbia. Although the blimp was not chosen because of its name, the coincidence is hard to miss.

Postal cover carried aboard the Goodyear blimp during the Neil Armstrong Homecoming Parade.

After the many celebrations, banquets, and official dinners, the Apollo 11 crew embarked on a new mission: a goodwill tour around the world. Leaving the United States at the end of September and continuing for 45 days, the astronauts and their spouses travelled to 27 cities in 24 countries in a plane normally reserved for transporting the US president. This tour allowed the astronauts to share information from the iconic spaceflight with other nations, present items to heads of state, and discuss plans for space exploration in the future. Many throughout the world celebrated the arrival of the crew just like in America, cementing the importance of the Apollo 11 mission in global memory.