In a blimp, you would think the anxiety would be aloft

May 23, 2002|By KEVIN COWHERD

Let me begin by saying that it was not while we floated gently through the skies over Bowie in the Goodyear blimp that the headline "NEWSPAPERMAN KILLED IN FREAK BLIMP MISHAP!" flashed into my head.

No, that happened once we were safely back on the ground and posing for pictures, after a gust of wind blew the blimp toward us and the ground crew chief yelled "Run!" and I thought: In the entire history of aviation, has anyone ever been run over by a blimp?

But that's getting ahead of the story, which began on a gorgeous weekday afternoon when we took off from Freeway Airport in Bowie.

Our pilot was Greg Poppenhouse, 39, from Akron, Ohio, who quickly became my new best friend by virtue of the fact that I was sitting next to him in the gondola and he now held my fate in his hands.

As it turned out, in addition to being a cracker-jack blimp pilot, Poppenhouse flew helicopters in the Army and is also qualified to fly fixed-wing aircraft and hot-air balloons, which was certainly reassuring.

But even more reassuring were the words of Goodyear airship operations manager Scott Baughman, who, right before takeoff, casually mentioned: "Blimps are generally regarded as the safest form of transportation in the world. Goodyear has operated blimps for 77 years with no major injuries to passengers."

Oh-for-77-years - that sounded like a great injury ratio to me.

Now you may think that a huge blimp - this one was 192 feet long, 59 feet high and 50 feet wide - would take off by simply rising horizontally into the air.

But, Mr. or Ms. Know-It-All, you'd be wrong.

What actually happens is that the ground crew lifts the blimp off the ground, then bounces it down hard on its single wheel and pushes it up again.

This clears the tail from the ground and points the nose at about a 20-degree angle, at which point the pilot guns the engine and the blimp goes shooting into the sky.

OK, maybe not shooting - it's a blimp, not a Saturn 5 rocket. Maybe "chugging" into the sky is the better description for what we did.

As it rises, the helium inside the polyester fabric of the familiar cigar-shaped "envelope" expands, allowing it to float along. The blimp has a top speed of 55 mph, but Poppenhouse was only doing about 20 mph. (Not because he was being a wuss, but because we were up here to sight-see, not set any speed records.

Once we had drifted to an altitude of 1,000 feet, Poppenhouse leveled the blimp and we had an absolutely dazzling view of the countryside.

Below us, green fields shimmered in the sunlight and farmers waved and cows grazed, which is not something you really want to see up close. Off in the distance we could see the traffic racing along U.S. 50 and FedEx Field, where the evil Redskins play, as well as the Six Flags amusement park and US Air Arena.

Not that I was really paying attention to the sights, because at this point Poppenhouse decided to whip off his headset and give us an impromptu lesson on blimp-flying.

Mid-air flight lessons always tend to make me nervous. I was in a Cessna once when the guy at the wheel, or whatever you call it, suddenly started explaining how to fly the plane.

Which was fine, except as he did this, I noticed we were drifting toward a mountain, which didn't seem like a good thing.

But Poppenhouse was a total pro. He showed us how the rudder pedals controlled the left-right movement of the airship and how the "elevator wheel" controlled the pitch, and we weren't dipping and rolling as he did this.

There are three Goodyear blimps; ours was called the Spirit of Goodyear, and it travels with a team of four pilots, 17 ground crew members and a public relations manager. After the blimp was used for last Saturday's Preakness telecast, Poppenhouse and his fellow pilots had stuck around the area to give rides to selected Goodyear guests and members of the media, which was how I was able to weasel my way aboard.

Speaking of the Preakness, Poppenhouse said the Goodyear blimp will often float over a stadium or arena for up to 10 hours while shooting a sports event for TV.

Which begged the obvious question: Does this thing have a bathroom?

The short answer, said Poppenhouse, is no.

"We have, um, portable travel johns," he said, and at this point, all of us in the gondola decided it was best to change the subject.

Finally, after about a half-hour, it was time to return to the airport. As we floated in gracefully out of an azure sky, I remembered something Poppenhouse had told us earlier: that the Blue Angels, the Navy's famous precision aerial team, was practicing in the area.

I also remembered that the Goodyear blimp is still restricted from flying over New York and Washington since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. And we were damn close to Washington. But, thankfully, the Blue Angels didn't scramble to intercept us, and we landed without incident.

No, the incident took place after we landed.

As we scrambled out of the gondola and another five passengers jumped in to take our place, I shouted to our little group: "Let's get a shot of us with the blimp in the background before it takes off again."

It sounded like a terrific idea at the time.

So we draped our arms around each other. The photographer raised his camera. We all smiled radiantly.

Then a gust of wind came along and suddenly the Spirit of Goodyear was bearing down on us like some kind of giant, deranged creature, with the grounds crew straining to hold it down.

Well, that was the end of the photo-op, unless you wanted a shot of five wild-eyed people running from a blimp.

Which, I suppose, has a certain entertainment value.

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