Above Atlanta on the Goodyear blimp

Originally Published: December 7, 2010
By Michelle Hiskey | Special to Page 2

ATLANTA -- Fast, lean and young athletes may rule the field.

But the Goodyear blimp dominates the sky by being slow, lazy, fat and old.

That's what makes riding in it so fun.

The Spirit of Innovation touched down in a big field near Atlanta Motor Speedway this week, its home while covering Saturday's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome.

Sweat dripped only as the blimp docked. A crew of 16 in black uniforms ran out like a grounds crew in the sixth inning, grabbing cables dangling from the blimp, steadying the 13,000 pounds of helium as it hovered just above the ground.

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Michelle Hiskey The ground crew heads out to wrestle the 13,000-pound Goodyear blimp.

Time to get on.

Hurry through the big shadow, two-thirds of a football field long. Climb the moving ladder on the side of the cabin. It's like boarding a boat.

Sit next to senior pilot Brian Comer. Don't bother buckling. There's not enough G-force to need a seat belt. Slide down the windows, just like on a school bus.

Comer looks like he's in a wheelchair. He uses two hands to turn the thick wooden wheel between the seats -- the "elevator" -- and the nose of the blimp is going up, up, up, UP!

The crew has let the cables go, the propellers are spinning, the engine roars and the ground pulls away slooooooowwwwwwwwwly.

Surely the kid in "E.T." flew his bicycle faster than this.

Comer looks like he's pedaling, too. His feet steer the blimp, adjusting to the constant, gentle currents.

Very retro -- check. Few rules -- check. Like riding golf cart 1,000 feet in the air -- check.

Sail over the empty NASCAR track, and the blimp's nose points down. If God wore binoculars, Turn 1's billboards would look like this.

The engine noise is like a jet's. Put on a headset to talk to the pilot.

Conversation has nothing to do with the upcoming event, but rather, the blimp's travels.

Comer's latest detour? After floating over Red Sox and Yankees games in late September, Tropical Storm Nicole forced the big balloon into a three-day bypass down the Appalachians.

"We ended up in Tuscaloosa for the Alabama-Florida game," Comer said. The blimp is based in Pompano Beach, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale.

Looking forward, as he always should, Comer expects his airship to showcase Miami more often, now that it's home to LeBron James.

But could LeBron fit through the blimp's 23-inch-wide cabin doorway? Steve Largent, Maury Willis, Jim Abbott and Carl Yastrzemski have.

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Michelle Hiskey A view of Atlanta Motor Speedway from the cabin.

The last pro athlete to sail in this blimp was the PGA Tour's Erik Compton, a double heart transplant recipient who had just won the Ben Hogan comeback award.

"Great guy. He had a big bag of clubs and gave me a hybrid [golf club]," said Comer, 47, an 11-handicap who grew up in Syracuse playing lacrosse.

Blimp pilots need hand-eye coordination and coolness under pressure. A background in yachting helps too.

Cruising at 1,000 feet, the blimp glides over a (non-NBA) Atlanta hawk.

"We watch hawks with a hawk's eye," Comer said. The gliding ones "have found the updrafts, because they don't want to flap their wings if they don't have to. We look for those air currents too."

Riding the same tailwind as the bird, Comer descends.

The ground crew fans out in a trot to grab the cables. They look like a pack of mimes, which fits this giant billboard that since 1960 has silently followed crowds of American sports fans.

Slow, lazy, fat, old -- and quiet. Not like the sports it covers, but always above.

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.

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