Our fearless photographer takes a ride in a blimpand ends up looking for a soft place to fall.
by Ed Richardson
I am 2,500 feet over the Tennessee River. It is an early morning in late May, and beneath me a warm light is cast across the pastoral farmland of East Knox County. I am en route from Knoxville to Charlotte, N.C. A dull and relaxing hum emanates from the twin engines that propel me along the eastward course of I-40 at the breakneck speed of 45 mph. Forty-five miles an hour? This thing's as slow as Christmas. What was I thinking? It suddenly occurs to me that I'm in a blimp on its way to another state and there's not a bathroom in sight.
"What do you think?" asks pilot Steve Adams.
"It's a very smooth ride," I say.
He laughs. "It is for now."
Adams is the chief pilot of the Budweiser Blimp (aka Bud One Airship) owned and operated by The Lightship Group of Orlando, Fla., leased and paid for by Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, Mo. Bud One is no stranger to Knoxvilleif you were at last year's Florida game you saw Bud One hovering over the stadium. It's one of a number of blimpsfrom Goodyear to Fuji Filmthat have become part of the college football tradition, promoting all sorts of products you wouldn't normally associate with lighter-than-air travel.
I've always been curious about these anachronistic airships that evoke the bygone era of the colossal and tragic Zeppelins. What does it take to own, operate, and fly a blimp? Why bother? And most importantly, how do you go to the bathroom?
A few days previously, I saw Bud One churning over the city like a loud yard tool. It's been over 60 years since American Airlines offered connecting flights to the Hindenburg, but I decided it was up to me to tell the world what's going on up there. So I hitched a ride.
We took off from Island Home airport at 7:30 that morning. A ground crew of 15 young men led the blimp to the runway, guiding us with two large ropes affixed to the front of the airship. They adjusted our weight with bags of lead shot used for ballast, then literally threw us into the air.
Joining Adams and me is a mechanic named Ed (no relation). We are riding in an oblong gondola attached to the underside of the large helium-filled envelope. Bud One is reportedly big enough to hold 8,379,888 bottles of the product it advertises. I believe this claim. The blimp is more than half the length of a football field and shaped not unlike the football itself. The gondola is surprisingly smallsomething like a microbus. It seats two crewmen and eight passengers. As I stand to take a photograph, Adams cautions me,
"Hold on to something if you're up moving around; and don't lean on anything you can see through."
Bud One is flying to North Carolina for the Coca Cola 600 where Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be driving the Budweiser car in his Winston Cup debut. The Bud One schedule consists of one sporting event after another. And transporting the blimp isn't simply a matter of packing it up and putting it on a truck.
"Everywhere we go, we have to fly it," says Adams.
Two days ago they were in Indiana for the Indy 500 time trials. In four days they will be going to Joilet, Ill. for an NHRA drag race. The 51-year-old Adams and his ground crew spend much of their time in transit. Each change in location and weather brings with it a new set of challenges.
"We take care of the ship 24 hours a day." Adams says. "We never leave her alone. It's the biggest baby in the world."
Back at Island Home, the crew is packing up the landing site. They travel with several Budweiser trucks and trailers filled with equipment, supplies, tanks of helium, and jugs of aviation fuel. A crucial task is dealing with the mast, a 30-foot pole anchored to the ground with cables and stakes. While it is moored, the blimp's nose is attached to a swivel at the top of the mast, making it an enormous weather vane.
Earlier in the morning I spoke with crew chief Brian Severance, a blond-headed young man in his mid-twenties.
"You want a job?" he asked immediately. "We need somebody. You'll start at $280 a week with benefits plus a $27 per-diem. We've got 10-hour days, but most of it's riding in the truck or sitting around waiting. I'd say we have three or four hours a day of actual work."
I decide there is something appealing about this job. No car. No car payments. No rent. Free beer...
Severance describes their latest recruit.
"He was working at a hotel we were staying in last week. He quit his job, moved out, and sold his car."
It sounds like running away to join the circus.
One crew member was from Florida, and he's still upset about UT's narrow 20-17 overtime victory last year.
"We were robbed."
"How did you get involved with the blimp?" I asked him.
The others started laughing.
"His wife told him to get a job."
Back in the air, Adams and Ed the Mechanic discuss the ground crew lifestyle.
"Most of them like to go out and have a good time, but some of those guys can spend their per-diem check in three days. They like to go out and flirt with the women. They tend to show off about being with Bud One. The old joke about blimps is: there's one pilot during the day and 15 at night."
Ed the Mechanic tells a related story.
"____ and ____ (not their real names) brought a couple of girls out to the blimp. It had been raining and there was half a foot of water in the field. ____ decided he'd show off and carried one of the girls over the water. When they climbed out of the blimp, he tripped and dropped her right into the mud. Boy, she came up swingin'. She was mad!"
At first glance, the cockpit of the blimp seems relatively simple. It is much like any small airplane, replete with a gyro horizon, altimeter, radios, engine controls, and so forth. But on closer examination, there is nothing resembling a steering wheel. Overhead there is a set of handles marked "Helium Valve" and "Ballonet" that look like the pull cord of a lawn mower. And Adams seems to be sitting in a wheelchair.
The wheelchair is really the control for the elevator, the horizontal fin at the tail. This pitches the blimp's nose up and down, causing a climb or dive. Adams operates it by pulling or pushing one hand after another to turn the wheel. On the floor are rudder pedals, controlling the vertical tail fin that turns the blimp left and right.
"There's no power steering up here," says Ed the Mechanic. "It's all cables. It takes a lot of muscle. To push the rudder to full deflection takes over 200 pounds of force. You rarely need to do that, but that gives you an idea of the strength required to fly this thing. After 12 hours of flying a pilot is exhausted."
The basic reason a blimp flies is that it is filled with helium, which is lighter than air. But the helium expands as the blimp goes higher, causing its pressure to rise. The amount of pressure is very important: not enough and the blimp cannot keep its shape, nor can it fly; too much will cause structural strain. So inside the envelope is a secondary envelope called a ballonet. When the blimp is on the ground, the ballonet is filled with air. As the blimp flies higher and the helium expands, the pilot releases some of the air from the ballonet. Once the ballonet is empty, the blimp cannot fly any higher. (In the case of Bud One, this occurs somewhere around 10,000 feet.) As the blimp descends, the pilot opens the ballonet to let air back in. This is an ongoing process and requires the continuous attention of the pilot.
Douglas Lake passes beneath us to the right. Adams immediately notices the large houses on the shore.
"Look at that one down therewith the viewing deck and balcony. See that row of trees? I would cut down that row of trees and plant a new row there, further up the hill."
Adams has spent much of the past three decades in the air. It started with his passion for skydiving. He made over 4,000 jumps before he promised his wife he would stop. During that time he got his pilot's license and soon after got involved with ballooning. A job flying balloons for Disney led him to flying Seaworld's Orca Airship on a trial basis, then full-time. Five years ago he started flying Bud One. Now, from the air, all he seems to see are places to nest.
"Man, there's where I'd like to have a houseright there on that rise on the water. The only problem would be all your neighbors wanting to dock there, so you'd have to own all that over there to keep them out."
Eventually, Adams gives up.
"I don't need a house," he laughs. "I need another suitcase."
Still, he alludes that next year's Superbowl might be his last.
"Our tour starts with the Superbowl. Advertising is so expensive that the 90 seconds of placement we get with the blimp is worth millions to Budweiser. They don't tell us what the operating costs are for Bud One, but I'm sure it's in the millions. So Bud One pays for itself during the Superbowl. This year will be my seventh Superbowl and after that I'm thinking of going part-time as a back-up pilot; in case someone gets sick or something. It can be hard to find a pilot."
There are only 25 helium airships operating in the world and only 11 in the United States. Consequently, blimp pilots are extremely rare.
"There are fewer people qualified to fly blimps than are qualified to fly in the Space Shuttle," Adams adds.
I can't hold out any longer. If you gotta go you gotta go. If you must know, one brings a bottle. (Preferably with a wide-mouth). If you're a woman, a funnel device can be used, but you need to bring your own. If you gotta go number two, I've got no clue. I think you're in serious trouble.
The ground crew calls us on the radio as we reach Newport. A tail wind has put us several miles ahead of them. Adams explains we'll have to wait so they can catch up. Bud One must stay close to its crew. The blimp cannot land on its own. If there's an emergency, the crew has to find a suitable site, set up the mast, and be ready to land the blimpall in a hurry. Adams doesn't mind waiting. His eyes continue their diligent scan of the horizon.
"We'll just fly around and do some advertising, but for all I know, that's a dry county down there. If it's not, all the gas stations will sell out of Budweiser by the end of the day."
I think he's kidding, but I'm not sure.
We follow the French Broad River into the Smokies and climb to 5,000 feet. The air becomes cooler and I put on a jacket. The ride becomes increasingly bumpy. Each gust of wind against the gondola rolls the blimp to the side. Adams pushes the nose over and turns against the roll. The terrain gradually becomes more severe and we are buffeted by updrafts and downdrafts. Adams watches the altimeter and adjusts with a series of nose-downs and nose-ups. I hang stoically against my seatbelt and notice a pitch indicator on the side of the gondola: 45 degreesit feels like we're pointing straight down.
I become sweaty and grow silent. Adams notices the change.
"You're not prone to vomiting are you?"
"Well, I've never actually thrown up from motion sickness," I say. I surreptitiously pick up a barf bag.
"Just keep your eyes on the horizon."
This helps. I take short jabs at my notebook and shoot quickly with my camera. It's surprising how suddenly the nausea mounts when I'm not looking out the window. We continue like this for quite some time. I am pale and dizzy. I breathe slowly through my nose. I think I was told to do this at the dentist once, and right now it seems like a good idea. I am disoriented and everything looks light and sparkly. I can't seem to get a full breath. My feeble mind reels. Hypoxia! Oxygen narcosis! Don't they feel it?! Surely the envelope is leaking helium into the gondola and bonding to our red blood cells. Oh, it will be a painless death.
My lips tingle. I realize they are white. I grab my bag and evacuate my breakfast with heaving surges, sweat wringing from my forehead.
The front of the cabin is silent. No one speaks to me. I speak to no one. I believe I have transgressed an unwritten code of the sky, but I feel much better. We come through the mountains to Asheville. Adams breaks the silence.
"I heard there's a castle in the mountains somewhere around here."
"Biltmore?" I say.
"Yeah, that's it. The Vanderbilt family lived there. I'd love to see thata castle on a mountain."
It isn't hard to find. Biltmore is stunning from the air, bearing a geometry not perceivable from the ground. Adams is impressed.
"Do you have a blank disk?" he asks Ed the Mechanic.
He does. Adams puts the disk into a digital camera and becomes playful and indulgentthe most shameless of tourists. He steers the ship around to get a variety of views. He and Ed strike an endless number of poses in front of the mansion.
"Turn your head a little. Nothe other way. Lean forward. Now smile. That's a good one." Adams turns to me and grins.
"I love being a tourist from the air."
We continue along I-40 towards Statesville, where the blimp will be staying for the next few days. The large space required to operate the blimp precludes mooring in Charlotte where the race will be.
We arrive over the Statesville airport five hours into our trip. Adams surveys the runway. Part of the airport is closed for the blimp. We can see an area that has been freshly mowed.
"Dammit," Adams says. "They said they hadn't changed anything since the last time we were here, but they built a hangar at the end of the field. We can't set up the mast. There's not enough room."
He radios the ground crew and tells them the news. The airport operator tells us about a fairground to the Northeast, describing it as "plenty big." We spend half an hour finding it. It turns out to be a small race track. We head back to the airport. Along the way we see a large farm with huge open fields. Adams asks his crew chief about the farm and gives them directions. An hour and a half are spent locating the landowner who, as it turns out, doesn't want the farm used for the blimp. However, he has another farm a few miles away and he claims it's big enough. The ground crew waits for the owner to take them there. Adams is becoming visibly agitated.
"I was hoping to stay at the airport. When you're at an airport, people think twice about coming out and talking to you. But if you land on a farm, word gets around. By tomorrow morning everybody will be out here. I feel sorry for whoever baby-sits the blimp tonight."
The ground team arrives at the farm. Adams and Severance discuss its suitability over the radio. It's hilly, surrounded by trees, and not nearly as spacious as the owner suggested. Still they think it can work.
We wait while the crew assembles the mast. Once they are finished, they pull the trucks away from the area. They walk to an empty part of the field and stand in a 'V' shape with Severance at the vertex. The V is pointing into the wind. Adams drops sharply over the trees and swings toward the opening of the V. Severance begins a series of cryptic and aggressive hand gestures. The engines slow and Adams jockeys to get the right approach. We are close to the ground.
"This isn't going to work," he yells into the radio. He guns the engines and turns the ship about, bringing up the nose at a sharp angle. We climb quickly out of the field. Adams is angry.
"A crew chief never thinks of a landing site from the pilot's point of view. They're younger every year and they have no interest in flying. They can't envision how it looks from up here. Part of this race is at night. It's going to be hell getting in and out of here in the dark."
Severance comes on the radio and apologizes. He sounds shaken but tough. He and the crew move to another part of the field and again form the V.
Adams descends into the field again. He moves the blimp at severe angles, lining up perfectly with the V. He throttles the engines and pushes the nose over. We sink toward the crew. The two crewman at the tips of the V sprint toward the blimp. They grab the lines and each runs outward from the blimp to his side. The rest of the V has peeled off like a wave behind them. Many hands are on the ropes now and they haul us down.
We are floating in a sea of waist-high grass. The propwash sends ripples across the field. Severance directs us to the mast. A rope is attached to a nose line and pulled through the swivel at the top of the mast. We come to a stop. Adams shuts down the engines. A step ladder is attached to the gondola. Ten hours after leaving Knoxville we are in a field of Black Anguses. A tractor mows a path from the road to the blimp.
The crew piles into the trucks and retires to a nearby Comfort Inn, receiving their mail for the week. And what about me? How did I get home? Well, you might have to buy me a beer or two to hear that story.