Plane & Pilot
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Blimp My Ride

Cruising in Goodyear’s aerial ambassador

Blimp My RideMy foot pushes on the rudder pedal but nothing happens. I push harder. Still nothing. And so I stomp, hoping that the barn-door-sized rudder will finally budge. Like a large boat churning in open waters, the blimp enters a barely perceptible turn. It’s slow, but persistent, and so I step on the opposite rudder. Rather, I lift my body up and push with my entire weight on the opposite rudder. A long time passes before the blimp responds again.
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To earn a blimp rating through Goodyear, applicants must be fixed-wing pilots with commercial, instrument and multi-engine ratings. A background in training is helpful, since each pilot will be required to train the next newcomer. But turnaround doesn’t happen often. “When I was hired, I was the first new pilot at the California base to be brought on in 31 years,” says Jon. “The previous pilot had to teach me how to fly. Because it only has single controls, it’s a trust-building exercise. The instructor has to be confident that the student isn’t going to make a bad decision and put the aircraft in harm.” Training can take up to a year, and may involve a whopping 500 hours of flight time. “It’s a lot of time because it’s a unique aircraft,” justifies Jon. “The only way to build experience is to actually go out and do it. There’s no flight simulator. You have to do all the training in the blimp, and every landing is completely different than the previous one.”

Because the blimp is extremely susceptible to atmospheric conditions, landings can be very difficult. “It’s a very simple aircraft, but becomes complicated when out in the weather. Anytime the wind changes, the blimp wants to change too. If there are clouds and then the sun comes out, the blimp becomes lighter or heavier—the static condition of the blimp changes based on the environment. You have to be a meteorologist to fly a blimp,” comments Jon. “Furthermore, you’re landing to a ground crew of 13 people—live human beings walking around an aircraft with two spinning propellers. They trust you to keep their safety in the forefront of your mind, and if the flight approach doesn’t look good, you’ll have to go around. Sometimes you make perfect landings and sometimes you have to go around.”

Our landing at the blimp base in Carson, Calif., was the last of the day, so the ground crew fastened the blimp onto a 32-foot mooring mast, where it overnights. Secured by a steel ball at its nose, the blimp is free to rotate 360 degrees should the wind shift. (Like a weather vane, the blimp will always point itself into the wind.)

Passenger flights are given to families of Goodyear clients such as Toyota, Ford and GM, and interacting with younger visitors is Jon’s favorite part of life as a blimp pilot. “Children may be scared and overwhelmed on the ground, but when you get them in the air, they turn into a different person and shake your hand. This one little girl grabbed my leg, gave me a hug and was so happy. I have yet to find another job where people get so excited—airline pilots certainly don’t go through that.”

In addition to passenger flights and high-visibility night-sign flights, the blimp is often used to film sporting events. “We circle the game over and over, but it never gets boring,” asserts Jon. “We’re very busy. We watch on monitors and have to pay attention to the director. Sometimes they want beauty shots, sometimes play-by-play. We need to be aware of who is winning and who is losing. We have to contend with ATC, our ground crew back at the base and public relations inside the truck parked at the game.”

But no matter where the blimp flies, the overriding purpose is the same: to spread goodwill and say “thanks.” Each year, more than 60 million Americans catch a glimpse of a Goodyear blimp. “We’re promoting Goodyear products while we fly,” says Jon. “It’s like someone giving you keys to a Porsche and telling you to go drive for three hours and show off.” Well, maybe not quite as fast.

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Labels: Journeys


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