Inflated Dreams

The Russell Stover blimp tethered to her mooring mast at Essex County Airport in New Jersey. The author in the blimp gondola The Statue of Liberty and Manhattan island as seen from 1,000 feet in the Russell Stover blimp

As a personal coach for executives, I advise my clients to go after their dreams-no matter how outrageous they seem. And in my own life I try to practice what I preach. Which means that if I really want to do something, I go for it. But one of my biggest dreams has always seemed too huge and unlikely to take seriously.

I've always wanted to fly a blimp.

Ever since I was a sky-gazing little kid, blimps moved me like no other aircraft could. They're so big. So slow. So…silly. Let the Chuck Yeager types break the sound barrier; I'd rather idle above the earth, drifting

through the day looking down from 1,000 feet. My blimp dreams might have stayed unfulfilled through my entire adult life if I hadn't visited the local airport a couple of months ago, and spotted two grounded dirigibles. Tied to their mooring masts, the Blockbuster Video and Russell Stover Candies blimps looked like overfed broncs champing at the bit, ready to give someone a wild ride.

My imagination took off again. I could sell everything and become a blimp pilot! Then I could spend the rest of my life beneath a balloon shot up with laughing gas, just bobbing in the wind and floating around the country.

The problem with that scenario is that I happen to like my current job as an executive coach. So I began to fantasize about how I could do both. Maybe the blimp could be my new office. Most of my work is by telephone anyway-what better place to gain the necessary insights to advise my clients? I could coach entrepreneurs and executives from the clouds!

I called the blimp management company responsible for the two local blimps. My flying experience as a commercial glider pilot-or maybe it was my enthusiasm-must have made an impression. I asked the manager if they were hiring and he invited me to meet the ground crew and observe operations. The next day, I stood in the rain with the crew, watching the blimp hover over the interstate. Four hours later, I drove home cold and wet with a head full of blimp trivia and an invitation for a ride!

I arrived on the designated morning to find the Russell Stover Blimp's motors idling and the crew readying the mooring lines. Veteran pilot Drew Marshall was preparing for an eight-hour flight from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Patterson, New Jersey.

"It can get claustrophobic inside and there's no bathroom," he said. "Are you willing to spend the entire day aboard the blimp?"

Hell yes! Seconds later I was strapped in the co-pilot's seat. Drew eased the throttles forward and the two Bombardier engines whirred to life. As the crew dropped the lines, I waited for the sensation of being pushed back into my seat as we sped up for takeoff. But there was none. The acceleration was well short of overwhelming; we just floated up from the ground and we were off.

Drew-my pilot, instructor and potential employer-taught me plenty in those first few hours. I learned about the systems in the blimp that control pressure inside the 130-foot-long bag. I learned about weather limitations. I learned that blimp pilots look for crowds of people and try to get as many eyes to see the sponsor's logo as possible.

When I spotted a vulnerable target-a school yard filled with kids on morning recess-Drew lined us up for the kill. As the words "Russell Stover Candies" blotted out the sun, kids turned and mouths opened wide. The playground surged with children pointing at us, jumping and screaming with joy. I was one of those boys down there once. And I could tell Drew was too.

"Do you want to fly her?" Drew asked. We were over Darien, Connecticut, practically on top of my neighborhood. I took the left seat, and for the next two hours I stayed glued to the controls. I circled over my house. I buzzed my bike routes. I flew the wrong way up Greenwich Avenue.

Flying a blimp is a bit like flying a marshmallow, or a '74 Cadillac Fleetwood. It floats around a lot. There's no steering wheel, no airplane-type control stick. The pilot controls lateral motion with the rudder pedals, and vertical motion with the elevator control wheel, which is mounted sideways, next to the captain's thigh.

The action is anything but precise. You make an adjustment up or down, then you wait to see what happens. A few seconds later, you adjust again. And then you wait. And so on. And in this manner you wallow through the sky, through the waves and gusts of moving air, floating up and down, and from side to side.

Our relationship to other air traffic was remarkable. In most flying situations, a pilot scans the skies diligently, looking for other aircraft that might be on a collision course. In a blimp, you look for traffic but there is only so much you can do to get out of the way. So you simply blimpitate along and let everyone go around you. This makes blimping the most relaxed flying I have ever done. No wonder blimp pilots are always smiling in the airport pilot lounges!

We flew through one of the busiest airspaces in the world, past Newark Airport, over the Statue of Liberty, up the East River, past LaGuardia Airport and across Central Park. We returned down the Hudson River, almost without a care for other traffic. Helicopters flew alongside and below. Small airplanes zipped north and south. Larger aircraft flew overhead on their approach to LaGuardia. One thing was certain, they saw us. We would tell the control towers of our flight path, and as they followed us on radar, they reported our position to other aircraft in the area. The passing pilots always said, "Ahh roger, we have the blimp in sight," and thanked the controller.

So we simply wallowed along and enjoyed the view. Cruising speed is about 30 mph, and the whole experience is a bit like riding a bike. You move fast enough to make some progress, but slow enough and close enough to see all the details.

The blimp's slow speed and huge mass makes thermals quite interesting. The bow of the ship rides up as the blimp enters the rising air, then a few seconds later the tail rides up. You end up tipping up a few degrees, then pitching down, all the while oscillating from side to side. It's a nice slow motion, and very pleasant. Back on land that night, I felt like I had just finished a week at sea.

At the end of the day, landing a blimp is quite a stunt. It has no brakes. And no flaps, spoilers, drag chute, reversible propellers, wheel brake or anchor. It only has "living brakes," a ten man crew who runs below the front of the blimp to grab the lines hanging off her nose. The pilot makes his approach, aiming for eight knots of ground speed as he "flares" a foot or so off the ground and then hopes that the crew catches the lines. Too fast and he'll have to go around again. But each of Drew's landings was perfect.

Once stopped, the airship is secured to a mast where it rests, pivoting like a wind sock until tomorrow's flight. One of the crew will watch overnight at the airport to make sure that the blimp maintains constant pressure as the weather and temperature changes. Without this person the morning crew might arrive at the airport to find a limp blimp.

As I thanked Drew and drove home, I knew one of my biggest dreams was now fulfilled-but I had created another. My new vision was to make my coaching business completely portable. I would conduct my telephone sessions from airports and motels around the country. Blimp pilot by day, coach by night!

Drew made it clear that I would need three different power plane ratings and 1200 professional flight hours if I wanted to come back and fly with him as an employee. That's a tall order but for an airship this big, I'm not surprised.

That was twelve weeks ago. I have been training in single engine airplanes three days a week ever since. If Drew will have me, I am seriously thinking of spending the next few years 1,000 feet above the ground. I can think of no better way to spread my favorite message:

If you have a dream, go for it!

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For more blimp photographs, including a picture of the entire blimp cockpit, click here.

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