The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay is the biggest sporting event ever hosted in Pierce County.
And it’s a notable stop on the farewell tour for a longtime Goodyear blimp.
University Place is on the short list of cities that gets to see the Spirit of America blimp, a rare sight in the Northwest.
The 13-year-old airship is flying over Chambers Bay to provide Fox aerial footage of the U.S. Open as part of its West Coast farewell tour.
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“This is the last summer tour before it’s retired in August,” said Priscilla Tasker, airship spokeswoman for Goodyear.
The blimp’s visit to the U.S. Open was preceded by stops in California and Oregon and will be followed by appearances at events such as the ESPY Awards and the Special Olympics World Games.
As the airship flies from city to city during the monthlong journey, a crew of more than 20 in a fleet of six vehicles follow it on the ground.
When it’s not flying over the Open, the 192-foot-long Spirit of America sits at Sanderson Field in Shelton.
“We have to find an airport that can support very large aircraft,” Tasker said. “Sanderson Field is good because it’s such a wide-open space.”
Goodyear, celebrating the 60th year of its first aerial broadcast, employs four electronic technicians and four pilots, and a ground crew of about 13 people to launch and land the blimp each day.
After flying it from Sanderson Field, crew members set up a small tent outside the Fox television compound with large antennas that receive footage from the blimp. That footage is sent, via fiber optic cables, directly to a nearby semitrailer filled with dozens of producers and television screens monitoring the Fox broadcast.
Daniel Cruz was helping feed the footage from under the pop-up canopy Saturday.
“We monitor and adjust the signals and communicate with the pilot with hand-held radios,” Cruz said.
After Spirit of America’s retirement, Goodyear will roll out a new fleet of blimps.
Don’t count on another visit soon, though. Goodyear’s last blimp flight in the area was in 2007.
Why is it so uncommon to see blimps in the Northwest?
“Weather is a major factor,” Tasker said, adding that high winds and low cloud cover typically ground the airships.