Commentary

Blimp pilots get into the games, too

Updated: January 2, 2010, 12:35 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- The man sitting in the corner is in blimp training. His accent is a mix of Boston and South Carolina, a product of years of bouncing around in the Air Force. If you're afraid of heights, have chronic motion sickness and are trying to be reassured that a 30-minute blimp ride is safe, here's what you need to know about Brian Cutler: His definition of the word "safe" might be a little loose. A few years back, he was in the Thunderbirds and rode in F-16s going 500 mph.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cutler
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comBrian Cutler is a blimp pilot in training.

"I wouldn't get into it if it wasn't safe," Cutler says, doing one of hundreds of endorsements for the Goodyear blimp.

"I can't tell you what to do, but if you're writing this story, you've gotta experience it. It's a beautiful day. You'll go out over the coast, and probably see some sharks, some stingrays. … Some things you'll never get to see from an airplane."

Sharks and stingrays? Yeah, that's reassuring.

This assignment started innocently enough with a little digging through history. While doing some research, Tina Cerbone, an ESPN producer, read an article that said that 50 years ago today, Jan. 1, 1960, a camera from a blimp was used in a college football game for the first time when Georgia played Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Cerbone later found evidence that the real first time occurred Jan. 1, 1959. ESPN's "College GameDay" is running a TV piece about the history of the blimp and sports.

So the editors at ESPN.com decided to do something about the life of a blimp pilot. They're a rare breed -- the blimp pilots, that is. Corky Belanger, one of the Pompano Beach-based pilots, says there are only about two dozen licensed blimp pilots in the country. That's fewer than the number of astronauts at NASA.

They get paid to watch sporting events with one arm dangling out of the window and their airship hovering at 1,000 feet.

Whatever happens today, Cutler won't be doing the flying. He has thousands of airplane hours under his belt, he's been here nearly six months, but he still can't go out alone. Landing a blimp is so unpredictable that it sometimes takes more than a year to go through the training process. But Cutler loves his new job, he's antsy to get in the air and he wants you to see it.

Hop into the blimp, Cutler says. It's an adventure. Actually, hold that thought. First, the winds have to shift -- blimp pilots, by the way, are obsessed with the weather -- and the crew has to run and fetch a part for the engine.

Very reassuring.

A rare breed

OK, so we wait in a giant room with eager pilots fiddling behind desks and a fruit torte that has been picked over by about 10 crew members.

[+] EnlargeBlimp
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comThe view from a blimp ride the author took in Florida.

It isn't easy finding the right person to do this. Cutler's job drew more than 800 applicants, from airline captains with 40,000 hours to wishful beginners. It took nearly a year to wrap up the interviewing process. Everything moves slowly in blimp time, the pilots joke.

It isn't just about being a great navigator. A blimp pilot has to be patient. The airship moves, most days, at 35 mph tops. A blimp pilot has to get along well with others. The crew goes on the road for three months straight, traveling from boat shows to NASCAR races to charity events, with a tour bus, a tractor-trailer and two vans. It's a very non-rock-star existence.

"It's more like a carnival," Belanger says.

A blimp pilot has to be spontaneous and adaptable. No two landings are the same, which is why it takes so long to train Cutler. They need ropes and 16 crew members to corral the blimp upon landing and have to factor in wind, static and space.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, you're not landing on a runway," Belanger says. "I mean, you're just not. Most of the time the biggest part of the airport is an open field. That's usually where we land.

"You might be flying over a set of trees and clearing a ditch and coming into the ground. It might be in complete darkness. It's almost an art, really."

There are no prima donnas here, Belanger says. When the other three pilots aren't in the air, they're grabbing the ropes, falling into puddles, skinning up knees. Everybody launches, everybody lands. If your shirt isn't dirty, Belanger says, 16 other guys are going to let you know.

Cutler brings a more regimented element to the team. He's a checklist kind of guy, a characteristic that no doubt was honed in his four years as a crew chief for the Thunderbirds. Cutler eventually moved on to the commercial airline industry and made a good living, but he decided something was missing.

He never flew with the same crew or got to know their families. He rarely got the chance to see what he was zooming over. That's not a problem with the blimp. It takes two weeks to travel across the country from Florida to California. They fly it in increments of 300 miles a day.

"Some guys, their dream is to be able to fly for an airline," Cutler says. "For me, that's boring. There's no thinking outside the box in airlines.

"And that's very much what this job is all about. You have to adapt to everything that's going on around you. Because it's constantly changing. It's unique. There's no other flying like it, other than maybe a bush pilot in Alaska. There's very few pilots who experience what happens here."

They dote on their airships

At 29, Belanger is the youngest in the group. On any night in South Beach, he has the classic pickup uniform for the lonely women at the bars: a freshly pressed white pilot's shirt, black tie and rugged flyboy looks. But when strangers ask Belanger what he does for a living, he throws them a curve.

[+] EnlargeCorky Belanger
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comCorky Belanger says waving the Goodyear flag is the most important part of his job.

"I sell tires," he says.

That, Belanger believes, is the most important part of his job: waving the Goodyear flag. He took his first blimp ride when he was 3 days old, with his dad behind the wheel. All his life, he knew he wanted to follow in Corky Sr.'s footsteps. He never thought the job seemed uncool, even in high school.

It's not a big event unless the blimp is there, Belanger says.

He dotes over the blimp. When it's hurricane season, he's glued to the radar, ready the steer it out of harm's way. It's a 24-hour-a-day job, he says, and, actually, it is for somebody. The blimp is constantly guarded every hour of the day by a Goodyear crew member. There are two other blimps in the company fleet: one in Ohio, and another based in California.

It takes two keys to help start the engines, but Belanger won't say where they're hidden because he doesn't want a reader to get any funny ideas. The blimp is his baby, his childhood love.

"It's funny," Belanger says. "I've been around blimps all my life, but I still look at them the same as I did when I was a kid. I still look at it with big eyes. It hasn't gotten any smaller."

Getting into the game

Their favorite part of the job usually revolves around sports. Ask Marty Chandler, the pilot in charge, about the highlight of his career, and he blurts it out with little hesitation: the Auburn football games. Chandler has been to Super Bowls and watched a baby-faced Tiger Woods smack a golf ball in his first days as a pro, while the camera operator in the blimp said the kid was a flash in the pan.

But Chandler, an Auburn alumnus, says the best moments are the two times he flew over Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn lost both of those games, by the way.

"You see an LSU running the ball back 71 yards on a kick return, and you're not happy," Chandler says. "But I'm not going to fly the airship away just because I'm mad. Until it says 'Marty Chandler' on the side [of the blimp], I can't.

"But we have a really good view of what's going on. You really get into the action."

It's a juggling game during sporting events, steering the blimp toward the action, timing the left turns, trying to stay out of the way. The U.S. Open tennis tournament is one of the hardest events to cover, Chandler says. There are airplanes whizzing around from JFK. There are tennis players who get perturbed over the roar of the blimp's engines from 1,000 feet above. There are shadows to worry about and international satellite signals to dodge.

"So you work like crazy," Chandler says. "Because the last thing we want to do is disturb the event we're trying to cover."

The facilities

Just before dusk, the blimp is ready to roll. Belanger climbs into the tiny gondola, gets behind the controls and takes off into an orange sky. Some days, when he's working NASCAR races, he can be up in the air for nearly eight hours.

He's asked how they go to the bathroom, and Belanger alludes to the fact the powder room in the blimp is rather primitive. It's not worth investigating.

He pushes the blimp to 1,000 feet, and the engines drown out the conversation. Somewhere in there, Belanger says, See, it's not all that scary. It isn't, as long as you don't look down.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.