If you spotted the Goodyear blimp over Akron the other day and wondered why it was swaying wildly back and forth, wonder no more.
Capt. Dyer reporting for duty.
Seriously. My wildest dream. Your worst nightmare.
After driving a city bus, a locomotive and a dragster, I dropped a printed hint about the blimp -- and a couple days later my phone rang with an invitation.
Which begs the question: What's wrong with you people? I have no qualifications for any of this! All I can do is type! What are you thinking?!
But we digress.
We were talking about how the $5 million Spirit of Akron -- the biggest, fastest airship in Goodyear's fleet -- came to be flopping around in the autumn sky like a giant maple leaf that had surrendered its hold on a tree. It's a wonder nobody called 1-800-GRAB-DUI.
Let the record show that the guest pilot was stone-cold sober. The problem was, um, the wind. Yeah, that's it. The wind. It was blowing at 18 mph. Funny thing, though -- the blimp didn't seem to shake, rattle and roll while the regular pilot was in command.
If Capt. John Moran was having second thoughts about turning over his controls to a novice, he did a great job of disguising it. I'm pretty sure that tortured voice I heard -- "The humanity! The humanity!" -- was coming from inside my own head.
Fortunately, unlike the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg, the Spirit of Akron is not a tinderbox. Blimp builders long ago learned their lesson: Although hydrogen provides better lift and is more readily available, helium makes a lot more sense because it's very stable, with a slow reaction rate. That's what I kept telling myself as I tried to chase away visions of infernos.
Get a grip, boy! How much trouble can you get into going 35 mph? Have you ever read a news report about a "low-speed crash"? Heck, you've gone this fast on water skis!
Then I tried this: You live on a planet that is spinning around at 1,040 mph while it moves through space at 66,600 mph. How much scarier can things get?
Well, pretty scary. This 205-foot-long floating billboard is made out of polyester, for god's sake -- polyester fabric backed with a thin coat of neoprene. And it has two ropes dangling from its nose, like a birthday balloon whose owner lost her grip.
Apparently, the tension was visible on my face because Moran told me to relax. Now, Moran has been flying blimps for 30 years and is widely considered the best in the world. For a big sports telecast, he will take the Spirit up in weather conditions nobody else would dream of challenging. And, according to Moran, one of the keys to being a successful pilot is to act like everything is under control -- even when it's not. Especially when it's not.
That would have required more acting ability than I possess. But I took a big breath and tried to enjoy myself as we soared clumsily over Springfield Lake, heading toward Derby Downs and the Rubber Bowl.
"It's just like the joystick on your computer," Moran was saying.
Well, it does look the same. But if this were a computer game, I'd return it to the store. You push the stick right . . . take a nap . . . get a snack . . . read the paper . . . and maybe by then the blimp will move to the right. While you're waiting, you flop the stick around, trying to generate some kind of action. And eventually you do. But by then you're a few steps behind. Or ahead. I still haven't quite figured it out. Let's just say this thing ain't exactly equipped with rack-and-pinion steering.
The blimp surged right, the blimp surged left. Beacon Journal photographer Ed Suba was flopping around the inside of the gondola like a goldfish on a countertop.
I must say I felt considerably better a few days later when I logged onto Goodyear's Web site and read the list of "frequently asked questions" -- specifically, "What is it like to fly the blimp?"
"The blimp has a life of its own in the air. Its movements are slow and ponderous, and yet it reacts very intimately to air currents and thermals. It can take several seconds for the ship to respond to the pilot's commands, and as a result, blimp pilots (must) develop a feel that helps them counteract the blimp's inclination to aimless meanderings."
Boy, they got that right. Aimless Meanderings R Us.
But one direction seems to require very little coaxing -- down. Down works. You push down, it goes down. One of my best downward surges came as we approached the Rubber Bowl at the precise moment a University of Akron football game was ending. The players and fans must have flashed back to the movie Black Sunday.
Our plunge took place shortly after the pilot said we were a little too high, that I should bring it down from 2,500 to 2,000 feet. He probably didn't mean all at once. But what do you want from a rookie?
Part of the problem is that when you think you're flying level, you're actually going up. That's why a greenhorn needs to keep a close eye on the altimeter. (Please note my facile use of pilot jargon.)
Most of the time we stayed between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. The Spirit of Akron is capable of cruising at 10,000 feet and 65 mph, but that defeats the purpose. The whole idea is to promote Goodyear. If nobody can read the big yellow-and-blue "No. 1 in Tires" logo on the side, the company is wasting a whole bunch of money.
So rid your mind of any salacious thoughts about the Mile High Club. The best a couple could do in the blimp is the Quarter-Mile High Club.
Actually, blimps are no laughing matter at Goodyear. The company spends $18 million a year to keep its six airships aloft. In addition to the Spirit, based at Wingfoot Lake in Portage County, there's the Eagle in Los Angeles and the Stars and Stripes in Pompano Beach, Fla. Three smaller ships carry the Goodyear message in Europe and South America.
As you may have guessed, piloting a blimp is not exactly a mainstream career path. Each of the Goodyear's six ships has four pilots. Do the math, bucko.
"When Goodyear needs a blimp pilot, we go out and hire an airplane pilot and teach them how to fly the blimp," Moran said over the hum of two 425-horsepower turboprops attached to the side of the gondola.
I always figured you had to manipulate the helium to go up and down, like a hot-air balloon changes its air temperature. But basically you just drive the thing up and drive it back down.
In the hands of a professional, the ride is incredibly smooth, even on a day with moderate wind. Moran says that smoothness is the biggest surprise for most first-time riders.
The big bird also is surprisingly plush. I expected the inside to resemble a glorified school bus. Instead, it's more like a private jet, with a single row of comfortable cloth seats on either side of a center aisle.
The Spirit of Akron has eight passenger seats, but the normal limit is six. It's based not only on air temperature but the weight of the passengers -- which, as you can image, has led to an occasional ugly scene at the ol' loading dock.
The pilots' seats are sandwiched around enough computer and electronic equipment to intimidate George Lucas. But operating the blimp requires an odd combination of high-tech equipment and good, old-fashioned muscle.
On the landing -- the trickiest part -- the pilot guns the blimp down hard, directly into the wind, and two guys on the ground catch the ropes and hold on for dear life. Then, half a million other guys in blue jumpsuits run up and grab on to the sides of the gondola to keep it near the ground.
Actually, 13 people are required for each takeoff and landing. When the wind is blowing, two of them look like characters in an old silent movie: As the blimp rolls around in the wind on its one retractable wheel, they chase it around with a portable yellow ladder. Just as they are about to hook the ladder on, the wind changes direction and the blimp floats away again. This can continue for quite some time. On most days, the big bag of helium never comes to a full stop.
But this funky boarding procedure just makes the blimp that much more lovable. This is a magical machine, a klutzy, endearing behemoth that, in the words of one Goodyear employee, is like "a giant, puffy grandmother."
Because Puff Granny is so much slower than an airplane, you can not only see the passing panorama, but really study it . . . the little cars moving through their blacktopped maze . . . the ripples spreading out and fading on the area's many lakes . . . the leisurely movement of birds' wings as they soar below you.
Granny also has magical bloodlines. Her Wingfoot Lake hangar dates all the way back to World War I, when Goodyear cranked out 1,000 balloons and 100 airships for the Allies.
The last military airship was delivered to the Navy in 1962. Since then, the blimps have been strictly a PR gimmick. Their only real mission is to thrill.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org