Coles Phinizy, who sometimes is lighter-than-air and often is heavier-than-water, has been drifting around in those ubiquitous snoopers on the sports scene, the Goodyear blimps (page 68). It is Coles's opinion that of all the vehicles invented by man—including the oxcart, the Apollo capsules and the Flexible Flyer—the only truly adventurous one is the free balloon, since it is the only one that will not take man where he wants to go. He further believes that the gas-filled dirigibles are first cousins in nature and spirit to balloons because, while they will take a man where he wants to go, they do it in their own way and at their own pace.
Blimps are so utterly light for their size, and their size is so great, that flying them requires a very special old-time, seat-of-the-pants skill. "Any dolt," says Coles, "can pilot the blimp crudely during his first flight, as any dolt can crudely manage the tiller of a sailboat in a few hours of trying. But real blimp pilots, like good sailing skippers, react instantly to wind shifts—seemingly almost anticipating change. It is not a thing that can be learned from a book; it is feel, gained by long hours at it. I was in the blimp at the Gator Bowl, in winds fluctuating between 20 and 28 miles an hour. We sat at an angle off the stadium, apparently solid as a rock, so solid I could hand-hold seven-power binoculars. The TV cameraman had a steady camera, but primarily because the pilot was in constant subtle motion. His feet kept moving, giving first left, then right rudder, his right hand worked at the elevator controls, lifting the nose in lulls, burrowing into increasing wind.
"Any ordinarily competent man can learn the small-plane bit in about 20 or 30 solo hours—takeoff and landing being the tacky propositions, particularly the latter. In limited respects, blimp flying is somewhat like small-plane flying, somewhat like sailing, but really not much like either. Blimp pilots are not considered truly competent until they have logged about 150 hours. Few of them learn enough in 300 take-offs and landings, no two of which are very much the same. A man can learn to bring a sailboat into an open mooring in any wind less than 30 miles an hour in a matter of days; it is simply learning how to get into the wind at the right time, letting the keel carry true in the water and making minor corrections. The blimp has no keel. The more it slows and loses steerage way as it comes down for a landing, the more it is susceptible to any little whimsical puff of the wind. Relatively speaking, landing a blimp in a 10-mile-an-hour wind is easy compared to landing it on a windless day. In a 10-mile wind there is air flowing over the control surfaces. The pilot is, in effect, merely bringing the blimp down to ground level where its landing lines can be seized while actually flying 10 miles an hour. When there is virtually no wind, the pilot must slow down to where there is virtually no air traveling over his control surfaces. In a sudden wind shift he has no means of correcting drastically.
"Blimp pilots love to get hotshot heavier-than-air pilots up for a ride. The prize trick is to take off a little light, motors going good, as they always must on a heavier-than-air takeoff. Then, about three seconds off, the blimp pilot cuts both engines back to idle. For a heavier-than-air man, such a loss of power so soon after takeoff means goodby forever. Goodyear Pilot Jim Maloney did just that about three years ago with the four men of the Air Force's Thunderbird jet team aboard. Terry Elms, the field manager of the blimp Columbia, was also along. 'Have you ever seen four supersonic jet jockeys all turn green simultaneously?' Elms asks."