Fear of Floating

October 08, 2006

THEY SAY your life is not complete until you run with the bulls, dive the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks and climb El Capitan without a rope. But there is one death-defying feat that makes those look like Boy Scout--badge stuff.

Flying the Goodyear blimp.

You scoff, but I'd heard that until you've been at the helm of the blimp, sitting under the world's largest unlit bomb, you're just doodling through life. That's why I leaped at the chance to try it.

I arrived at a small airport in Frederick, Md., and there she was, the most famous blimp of them all—apart from Rosie O'Donnell—the Spirit of Goodyear, two thirds of a football field long, six stories high, enough helium to fill 400,000 balloons. The Pimp Blimp.

The crew's assignment was to take "beauty shots" for ESPN's broadcast of a Baltimore Ravens--Indianapolis Colts game. I prepared for my safety briefing.

Well, turns out there's no safety briefing on a blimp. There aren't even seat belts. You can hang your elbow out the window as you fly, like you're in a '63 T-Bird. But don't be fooled—flying a blimp is an act of total insanity.

"Actually, blimps are just about the safest mode of transportation in the world," pilot Greg Poppenhouse said.

Right, tell that to the Hindenburg.

"Actually, the reason the Hindenburg burned was that it was coated with a flammable acetate," he said. "This one is coated in fireproof polyester."

Oh, O.K., but what if we're hit by fire from the MetLife Snoopy blimp? We'll go screeching off like an untied balloon! Where do you keep the parachutes?

"No parachutes. Even if we were shot full of holes, we'd just slowly sink. Probably take a couple of hours."

Ahhh, but the crash would kill us, right? Do we take instant cyanide pills?

"No, we'd just kind of bounce on our nose a little. Wouldn't even hurt."

Dang! This wasn't exactly Top Gun. You think they have blimp-pilot bars? Captain Breezy meet Captain Floater. You want a Tab?

Once we'd taken off (a crew pulls down hard on the side rails, bouncing the blimp off the tarmac and into the air), I asked, "What'll this baby top out at—80, 90 per?"

"Well, the most it'll do is 50, but we'll usually be doing about eight above the stadium."

Eight? A street sweeper goes eight.

In the cramped, 8-by-23-foot gondola there was barely room to store the water, Gatorade and snacks I'd brought along for the seven-hour flight. There were two seats in front. The back was taken up by the TV camera and a cameraman. The bathroom was in the—wait, where's the bathroom?

"No bathroom," Poppenhouse said.

After an hour we were over M&T Bank Stadium and began making slow, lazy lefthand turns.

What's next? Figure eights? Maybe some barrel rolls?

"No," said the pilot. "Lefts all night."

Oh... my... God. I mean, the view is beautiful, but after a while you go nuttier than Courtney Love. Hour after hour, lefts. You can't even watch the game because you're 3,000 feet up. You lean out the window and scream, "Hey, that was interference!" but nobody laughs.

Can't you go any lower?

"Nope," Poppenhouse said. "The NFL is the strictest. Golf tournaments are better. Some you can get down to 1,000 feet."

The only possibility of fun was to see if I could distract Poppenhouse and take over the keyboard that controls the lighted messages on the sides of the blimp. Maybe change the sign to something like, WE'RE HAVING SEX UP HERE! Or, EVER SEE THE MOVIE BLACK SUNDAY?

Suddenly, Poppenhouse was jostling me awake. "Game's over," he said. "You want to drive?"

O.K., that was fun. You steer with what looks like a sea captain's wheel, only it's below your right arm. You control elevation with two foot pedals. During my 20 minutes at the controls, I had that baby up to 27, 28 mph. But I couldn't keep it level. The cameraman appeared to be getting seasick. He looked at me. I grinned.

Then it occurred to me. The blimp has no wheels—how would we land? But then Poppenhouse tilted the nose down, and as we got close to the ground he loosed six lines, each maybe 25 feet long, which the crew below used to bring us in, soft as cashmere slippers.

Oh, how did I go seven hours without a bathroom?

All I can say is, if you were in the greater Baltimore area that night, those may not have been summer showers.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

I stopped chugging my Gatorade when I realized that I'd be in a blimp for seven hours with no bathroom. I looked at the cameraman. He grinned.

RIFFS of REILLY

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PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)