(Copyright 2001. The Tattoo. All rights reserved.)

The Tattoo

--- Making a Permanent Impression Since 1994 ---

July 2, 2001

Getting air at the X Trials

By Mike Nguyen

When you think blimps, you naturally think of the fiery Hindenburg crash. But that didn't stop me from jumping aboard the Hood Dairy blimp during the X Trials last month.

On a beautiful Saturday morning, I headed to Brainard Airport in Hartford. Miles away, I already spotted the feet-long red letters that spelled "Hood" on the white blimp.

Our blimp escort was ready and waiting. (By the way, the technical term for a blimp is "airship," but no one really minds.) The passengers and I got a briefing on how to safely board and exit the blimp out in the knee-high grass field.

The crew performed what looked like a suicide mission. They ran at the blimp, caught lines connected to the 62,000 to 70,000 cubic feet airship and pulled it to a stop.

After it landed, we boarded the small gondola where pilot Terry Dillard waited.

The gondola was set up like a car, with a back seat that can fit two or three people -- if you're small enough. The pilot seat is up front. The dashboard is set up like a plane, with hundreds of buttons and instruments to measure altitude and all that.

Everyone was given headphones with a microphone for contact with the pilot. This way, you know if the blimp is going down -- you hear all the radio contact with the crew and airport.

With the help of an aerial road map, we started our two hour ride at speeds hiting 20 miles an hour. Slowly and surely, with windows wide open to get air circulating and a true sense of a breath-taking experience, we rocked back and forth like a boat over neighborhoods, towns and schools.

From 1,000 feet in the air, everything looks like those toy town models you had as a kid. Soccer fields were covered with little moving dots. Houses were lined up neatly in rows and columns with little streets and little toy cars parked outside.

Golf courses we passed were the most interesting, as the carts circled around like they were just taking the same path over and over again.

"We scout out the best golf courses [in the region] and make arrangements for tee time after we fly," said Dillard.

Dillard, from Orlando, Fla., has been a blimp pilot for 10 years. After 15 years as a hot air ballon pilot, "I made a few calls and got my job," he said.

He flies for Lightship, an airship company that owns seven national and five international blimps including monster.com, Blue Cross and infamous Budweiser blimps. The airships have flown for over football games and the 2000 Olympics in Australia.

Dillard said pilots don't like talking about deflating.

"We never use the D-word," Dillard told the passengers. "A blimp is meant to be inflated and flown for its whole life."

A blimp can live for three years before the envelope or helium sac needs to be replaced, so pilots just fly off to the next destination rather than deflating and moving the airship.

"If a client wants us to go to California, it would take 18 days to get over there, so that's what we do," Dillard said.

Dillard said his next trip to Boston was to escape an incoming storm.

"With an airship, you have to move it wherever the weather is good," Dillard said as he maneuvered the blimp.

Trips can sometimes take shorter or longer than expected.

"If you have head wind, it slows you down," Dillard said. Tailwind pushes the blimp faster.

About half an hour or so into the ride, we caught a glimpse of the Otis Elevator building in Bristol. As we approached, we could see a small outline of the Ferris wheel at Lake Compounce and the swinging pirate ship at the base of South Mountain.

We hovered about the X Trials venue for photo opportunities and a look at the events. I could make out an athlete on the vert ramp flying back and forth. From our high spot, we had the advantage of not having to strain our necks to see.

After hitting the X Trials, we toured Bristol a little more and headed back to Hartford for our last obstacle: the landing. As we took one last look at the Hartford skyscrapers and tangled neighborhoods, we saw the 13-person landing crew and their vehicles driving into the Brainard field.

Amazingly, the landing was even smoother than than takeoff. Of course, that might be because it never really landed, but stayed afloat, just held down.

Remember, the blimp can't defla ... I mean, the D-word.

With my adventure done, we were loaded out of the airship. The blimp flew off on a little joy ride.

Sound fun? Well, the next airship ride can be yours.

Log on to www.hphood.com and click on the airship button, which will bring you to the Hood blimp's page, full of the whirring blimp sound and information on how you can enter yourself in a contest to win a free ride on the Hood blimp.

Trust me, it's worth doing and all you have to do is keep track of the site and collect points to be entered in a raffle. It's easier than it sounds, so log in and get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly in a blimp.

Oh, by the way, all passengers get to pick the destination where they want to fly.

Good luck and happy blimping.

Click here to see a picture of Nguyen with the Hood blimp

Click here to reach The Tattoo's comprehensive X Trials site