FLYING A BLIMP
FLYING A BLIMP
Captain Nancy Aldrich
Ever flown a blimp? It is an interesting experience! I had the chance – once.
I received a call from a friend saying that if I wanted to fly the blimp, I needed to be at the Long Beach Airport on a certain morning at about 5:30. I promised to be there, and what an experience that was!
Upon arriving, I was rushed into the blimp. They were anxious to take off as soon as possible to take advantage of the cool morning air. There were 21 people in the crew altogether. 3 pilots, and 18 ground crew. On this flight, there were 4 passengers, of which I was one.
I was told to take a seat in the passenger compartment, which I did. I could not see everything that was happening as the pilots prepared to take off. As they released the blimp from the mooring mast, the ground crew was surrounding the blimp, holding onto the lines. Once the engines were started, and we began to slowly rise, the ground crew released the lines and we were off.
It was magical. The engines purred, and we seemingly drifted slowly, gently rising over the city.
This was a two day flight, from Long Beach, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. The maximum air speed on this particular blimp was 30 mph, and the service ceiling was 3,000’. That explains the two days to fly from LGB to LAS. We could not climb above the mountains, so had to go around them. We flew to Blythe, California and spent the night there, then continued to Las Vegas on the second day.
Once the pilots stabilized the blimp at our cruising altitude, and we were on course, I was asked if I wanted to take over the controls – Boy, did I! This was totally different from anything I had flown.
As the blimp is flying away, the ground crew is working. They have to secure everything on the ground and pack up. Once their work at the airport is done, they get in the trucks and head down the road toward our overnight stop. About an hour and a half after taking off, the ground crew calls to let us know they are passing us in the highway. We look down, and sure enough, there they go! We were flying right down I-10.
The blimp is very quiet. Conversation is easy as we walk around and visit. We open the windows and enjoy the fresh air breeze.
Sitting at the controls and flying the blimp is work! First, there are no ailerons, so the yoke controls the rudder, which is huge. Since there are no rudder pedals, I can stretch my legs out and relax. Well, sort of relax. Moving that rudder around requires a lot of upper body strength. The rudder is about the size of a Boeing 747 rudder, and must be moved by cables. Remember, this is a ‘lighter than air’ craft, and hydraulic fluid is heavy. There is no hydraulic assist, you move the rudder with cables.
I have to admit I never got the hang of trim. Trimming the blimp is done by moving air around. Again, remember, this is a ‘lighter than air’ craft, so moving air changes the balance of the blimp. There are large air sacks, called ballonets. The handles controlling the ballonets valves are right above the pilot’s head. Moving the handles moves air around. If the blimp is nose heavy, move air aft to lighten the nose. Air can also be dumped, or fresh air brought in to replace dumped air.
The elevators work about like they do in an airplane, using the yoke.
After another couple of hours, the ground crew called to let us know where they were stopping for lunch and would call once they were back on the road.
At one point, flying through the gap between Banning and Palm Springs, we got into some turbulence. The blimp lurched and rolled. It felt like riding a bucking bronco. I quickly got out of the seat to let someone with a lot more experience get us back under control.
Now, it was my turn again. I tried to keep the blimp on something resembling a steady heading, but no such luck. I looked at the horizon to find something to steer toward. There is a mooring line that hangs from the nose of the blimp, right in front of my window. I try to keep that line on a spot on the horizon. As the line would start moving to the right, I would start putting in left rudder. As the line moved further right, I would add more rudder. Soon I would have full left rudder and the line would still be moving to the right. As soon as the line stopped moving right, I would take out rudder. When it started moving left, I would add right rudder and try to stop it moving past the center point. This is a real workout. I am moving a huge rudder from full left to full right, repeatedly, with just cables.
Soon we saw the restaurant where the ground crew had stopped for lunch. We called to let them know we were passing. They were enjoying lunch in a nice restaurant, while we were eating cold sandwiches and water, or pop.
After a while, the ground crew called to let us know what a great lunch they had, and that they were back on the road. Again, we watched as they passed by us. They were headed into Blythe to set up everything for our arrival. By the time we arrived, the mast was ready, they had been to a motel and booked rooms for everyone, and had made reservations at a restaurant.
The rest of the flight that day was fun. We switched seats several times so everyone who wanted to fly got some ‘stick’ time. After about 6 hours, we arrived in Blythe. It was time for the knowledgeable pilots to take over and maneuver for docking.
Once the blimp is secured to the mooring mast, it must be monitored constantly. Any change in barometric pressure requires a change in pressure in the envelope of the blimp to keep it from collapsing, or expanding. It will swing around to face into the wind, so it must be moored with enough room for it to swing in a full circle. The ground crew takes turns watching the blimp. I seem to remember they had 2 hour shifts, but can’t be sure of that. The pilots, passengers, and most of the ground crew had a nice dinner, then to bed for another early start in the morning.
The second day was a lot like the first as we followed the Colorado River up to Las Vegas. We cruised at about 1,000’, and could easily talk to people on the ground as we passed by. People would see us and start waving and yelling. We would wave back and tell them where we were headed.
When we arrived in the Las Vegas area, we circled the Hoover Dam for pictures. Then we flew down low over Lake Mead. The blimp is very quiet. At one point we sort of snuck up on a boat full of people. They didn’t notice us until we were just about over them at 100’. Several screamed before they realized we were just a blimp, and nothing to be frightened of.
We slowly made out way to the General Aviation Airport on the north side of town, where the ground crew was all set up and ready to receive the blimp.
What a great time I had those two days. We had flown for almost 12 hours, and I was able to log 6 hours of instructed blimp time, and I certainly wish it could have been longer.