By Mary Kay Waskom
Look! Up in the sky…it’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Goodyear blimp! No…on second look, that’s too small for that famous icon.
Like many Natchitochians, my curiosity was piqued. I watched the blimp float around the skies. It finally landed at the airport, but information at the terminal was limited as to what it was and what it was doing here. So, being the curious person that I am, I showed back up at the airport Wednesday morning to get pictures and ask questions. And, my curiosity was rewarded! The airport employee escorted me closer to the blimp, then we walked closer so I could take pictures. We were met by the pilot, who introduced himself, then I asked if I could take pictures closer to the gondola. The pilot offered for us to sit in it…awesome!
He showed us all the controls and explained about the aircraft. I thought I was recording a video, so I didn’t pay close attention (silly me…you have to actually turn the video button on!) and now I can’t remember all the details, but it was a bit technical in nature. I did take some still shots of the controls and gauges (the things I missed, the pilot later took pictures for me and sent them to me). Then, we had to get out of the cockpit so that the crew could get the craft ready for takeoff. There were fold-down steps to make entering and exiting easy.
The pilot likened the blimp to a big windsock when tethered. It is attached by the nose to a big pole on the ground, and the wheels under the gondola allow it to rotate 360 degrees, following the wind like a weathervane. He said that some pilots use this tethered blimp as a windsock, as it is easier to see from farther out. The crew had to move around with the aircraft as the wind shifted, but I could tell they have this process down to a science.
This blimp (formerly a MetLife blimp) came from a job in California. It has taken about two weeks to get here because of weather conditions, and they are on their way to Jacksonville, Florida for the PGA Championship on May 10. They planned to stop in New Orleans for an advertising job there.
A total crew of 15 works with the aircraft: 2 pilots, 2 mechanics, and 11 crew members. They travel with several trucks and a rigged-out van. The trucks carry supplies and luggage, and the van sports an office area with a refrigerator, a microwave, Internet and a TV…everything that is needed except for a bed (after all, it’s used by the security watchman, who needs to stay awake!) The blimp is never left alone. There is a watchman on duty 24/7, so the blimp is constantly being monitored.
In the van, there is a mechanics area with nuts, bolts and pieces/parts. They have special wrenches and manuals and logbooks for the FAA. Their whole operation is self-contained.
This kind of life sounds exciting, to see the United States in this quiet fashion, but it is a job like any other. The employees work 11 months and can split up their 4 weeks of vacation time in chunks of two weeks, or take the entire time all at once. According to the pilot, this vacation time is absolutely necessary to maintain their sanity. Days off are taken when the weather conditions won’t allow for flying. They recently were grounded in El Paso, Texas for five days, “twiddling our thumbs. The wind was blowing about 40 mph. Our limitation is about 18 mph. Today it’s calm. We’re running from storms, actually. You’ve got weather coming in tonight that’s gonna affect us tomorrow. We alter our days off, depending on weather. So, if I get 6 beautiful days, I’m going to use those 6 beautiful days to move 25 mph.”
Tuesday, they left Dallas, and refueled in Marshall, Texas. Natchitoches was their planned stop for the night. They had helium tanks delivered to the airport and had to go to a gas station for regular gas (the airport here doesn’t sell gas for automobiles, and that’s what the blimp runs on.)
After spending a bit more time with the pilot, we waved goodbye, and the crew worked together to get ready to take off. They unhooked the nose from the big red and white pole and dragged the blimp over to the runway. Minutes later, it had taxied down the runway and took off like a small engine plane. The members of the ground crew were left to take down the pole and pack everything up and then get to the next prearranged destination before the blimp so they could set it all up again at the next stop. What a life!