Blimp Ride

A genial stranger named Tony and I took a ride together out past the Savannah airport for an hour’s ride up in the Liberty Mutual blimp – or, I should say, the blimp that for this week at least wears a big Liberty Mutual body-stocking laced around its ample tummy; the blimp that, once equipped with the special gyro-stabilized camera, will televise this weekend’s big PGA Champions tournament.

A blimp is a very funny thing, as I quickly came to realize. Even Andrea, the young woman who gave us our set of pre-flight rules, seemed to think so. “You should see the guys trying to fuel it up,” she told us. “It bumps against them and bumps away again and here they are chasing after it trying to keep the hoses attached.”  I got a mental image of a cow nudging the person trying to milk her with a big warm flank. I got an image of a mama-cat standing up and wandering off with a few mewing babies still dangling from her undercarriage.

When we clambered into its little bread-basket of a cabin, tiny against the immensity of the bag above, I invited Tony to sit up front. A man loves an instrument panel; this I know. I sat in the back seat which is maybe six feet across and Tony settled in beside our pilot Peter who had a gorgeous head of hair and looked a lot like Garrison Keillor if you could get Garrison Keillor to smile more. Evidently you steer a blimp with these two large wheels tightly hugging the pilot’s seated body, one an elevator and one a rudder as Peter explained to us and when I watched him maneuvering them he began looking to me like FDR too.

Now except for Andrea, the ten-person crew for this blimp is made up of ten big guys who sprang into action as soon as we got clearance from the control tower. Some of them nudged free the landing gear with their shoulders; some started running while pulling us hard using two long fat ropes. “Now I die,” I thought briefly as the engines roared in deafening fashion but no. We shot into the air at an angle that seemed steeper than that of a science fiction jet plane. The blimp climbed up up up to 1000 feet, leveled off and then just kind of … bumbled around there.  “I’ve never gone this slow in the air,” said Tony.  “It’s a little scary,” said I.

“Nah. You can even lose all power and it doesn’t matter,” said Peter. “You just drift downwind, notify the crew and make a free-balloon landing.” He let the engines idle to show us what it felt like before putting them back into thrust again.

Meantime, the scenery tilted madly and those two fat ropes swung this way and that. It was like being inside the head of a recently escaped beast with a wildly tossing head.  I studied the ceiling of the cabin so I wouldn’t feel sick and saw up there, jammed under a metal rod, a dirty roll of paper towels and a fat, bent looseleaf notebook imprinted on its spine with the words “Airship Flight Manual/ Ground Handling Manual.”

Up front the two guys were talking away. “So this looks like it’s just a little Tom-Tom,” Tony said of the GPS mounted on the dash. “Yes but it’s navigational quality,” said Peter. “And what’s that in front of you, a laptop?” “Yup. In case there’s a storm coming. So I can see it.”

The tower was squawking on about one thing and another but I couldn’t make sense of any of it. All three of us wore these fat headphones and could only hear one another it all if we yelled into the tiny microphone each one had affixed to it. I didn’t care about talking anyway. We passed over the river like a stream of pure cool silver and the blimp dropped down. We passed over a giant yard full of cargo containers and it rose way up. “Thermals,” said Peter said. “Those containers send up a lot of heat.“ Stacked up neat as they were in their bright reds and blues and greens, they looked like a child’s’ collection of Legos. The trees looked like lollipops, like fake trees bought to adorn the landscape of a kid’s model train set.

Was this a child’s model train set or was this the real world? It was the world all right and we knew it for sure when Peter explained our landing. “The fellas line up in a V. Can you see them down there?” he said as we neared the end of our hour-long flight. We looked down at the field at nine small white figures in chevron formation with a small red figure at the top. “The guy in the red shirt feels for the wind and stands in such a way that it’s blowing on the back of his neck. If the wind moves, he moves. We have to be heading straight into it in order to land right.” Then the engine made a new noise and those tossing ropes grazed the ground and the big men grabbed and pulled, pulled, pulled on them to stop us – and they did and landed us, light as ol’ Forrest Gump’s feather, back on our momma earth.

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One thought on “Blimp Ride

  1. “Haven’t seen today’s column yet; it’s only 6 a.m. What a great trip you had; thanks to your hubby inviting you along! A friend had written me of her 8 days of absolute pampering in Hotel Wynn, Las Vegas. Saw a show last night where the camera captured the view a child saw above while being turned round and round in a swing; I actually got dizzy watching that scene”

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