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. 

14 Responses to FLYING A BLIMP

  1. Vicki Willis says:

    Looks like fun! I have seen a Blimp over Pensacola, Florida several times in my years as a resident. Don’t know if it is from this area or just here for the festivities (golf tournaments mostly).

  2. Crazy Woman 2 says:

    Great read.

  3. John McHugh says:

    YeeHaahh ~ yes I concur with Nancy that “blimping aint easy”; but sure is worth the effort in exchange for (arguably) aviation’s best vantage point to enjoy the passing views …truly a Magic Carpet experience! Thanks for sharing your memories of a fun trip.

  4. Nancy says:

    Well, Vicki, a lot of blimps have their home base in Florida, so when you see one, it might be passing enroute to somewhere else. They are fun to watch, and great fun to be in! If you ever get the chance, take a ride in one! You will love it!

  5. Blimps and Dirigibles although quite different share a grand history and simmilarities. There was a time that the world thought Dirigibles were going to be the future of world air travel. If one is so inclined, a study of the cigar shaped air travel vehicles are a very interesting story.
    Nancy thank you for bringing us such an interesting article about your experience, it delighted me. I have never been in a blimp. I have a question: I imagine the blimp is like a kite and very susceptible to every whim of the wind currents, and this is probably purely a power issue, but how do you deal with winds and how strong is too strong winds for a Blimp?

  6. Kathie Russell says:

    What a blast! I envy you that experience. I used to watch the Good Year Blimp here in Houston and I always wondered what it would be like to ride in one of those. Thanks for giving me an idea of what a blast I’m sure it must be. Keep up the great writing!
    Kathie Russell Houston, Tx.

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks Kathy. Hope you are not floating away in Houston!!! Flying the blimp for those 2 days was one of the best times of my life. It was beautiful, and magical. I loved every minute of it!!!

  7. Nancy says:

    JR, you have to remember, I only flew the blimp on this one trip. Yes, it does have a wind limitation. Since its max airspeed is 30 kts, that is a very limiting factor. If the surface winds are very high, there is no way you can fly. I will send this note to Captain McHugh, and get back to you.

  8. I recieved this email from Captain Nancy Adrich:
    In answer to your blimp question, I just got this back from Capt. McHugh:
    Yes your assumptions are quite correct: all airships share a common trait in that they’re very big machines but with very big vulnerabilities. I can say after 18ooo hours in the air (majority floating via LTA) that anyone who suggests airships are “all weather” machines are simply dreamers or fibbers (-:
    Historically airships (the general term for nearly all engined vessels that float aloft) are always flown near a state of equilibrium (which is the point of neutral buoyancy such that the ship neither rises nor falls when stationary without airspeed). By being “near” EQ (as its called) I mean the actual ballasted weight of the ship is usually within just a few hundred pounds of this neutral point. Therefore the “weight” (i.e. a force towards gravity) is a fairly minimal figure when compared to the large overall “mass” of the airship (which can be 10 – 15,000 pounds). This fact, plus the large square footage of ‘sail area’, make airships react very readily to even the lightest breezes. Also the ship’s physical size (2/3rds of football field long & 7 stories high) means that several air currents may be acting on different parts of the ship at the same time ~ and which one prevails to push things in a given direction is often impossible to predict and pilots simply have to correct whatever the airship is reacting to. In daylight flying when solar heated thermals are most frequent, airships generally pitch & roll gently while transitioning from one up&down draft to another (but its not usually as bad a ride on the inside as it looks from the outside: this is because the nose & tail basically move “around” the passengers who are seated in a gondola near the center). Airships often tend to sink slightly over dark colored i.e. cooler areas (like forests & lakes) and rise slightly over bright colored areas (like plowed fields or concrete roadways).
    When dealing with strong winds per se, the ship gets more challenging to fly ten folds. As long as one can keep the nose pointed directly into wind, there is good crisp control response for counteracting any wanderings. Side gusts sometimes take a long time & large distance for re-aligning the ship back into wind. The max wind limits for takeoff & landing are usually a specific published value, however that threshold might be lowered depending on other circumstances (such as local terrain features, experience level of the ground & flight crew, and most importantly gust-spread). Limits for airborne wind are generally not published figures, but instead are judgment calls made by pilots based on groundspeed-obtained versus distance to destination, and consideration of downwind alternate landing sites in case of an engine loss. Hope this helps explain a little bit about handling airships thru the breeze!

  9. John McHugh is a personal friend of mine. Besides being a phenomenal pilot (he can fly anything), he is a fantastic guy. Anyone who has met him is very fortunate.

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