The Horizon blimp has become a common sight in local skies over the last 15 summers. But there's nothing common about the view from the blimp as it flies over South Jersey's beaches and boardwalks these days - including a featured, low-speed spot near the start of Friday's Atlantic City Airshow.
Because even though the blimp spends about 30 prime hours each week in the sky when it's here, its passenger compartment, or gondola, is tiny, with room for just four adults, including pilots Terry Dillard or John McGuirk. And McGuirk figures they do 80 percent of their flights solo, meaning that not many people get to see what the world looks like from beneath the belly of this 132-foot-long, 38-foot-high, helium-filled bag of a flying billboard.
Plus, a blimp itself is a true rarity, no matter how often we can look up and spot Horizon's here, or turn on the TV and see one floating over a U.S. Open or a Super Bowl. The Airship Association, based in London, estimates that there are just 14 or so blimps working in the world today, most of them in the United States.
Pilots of these lighter-than-air ships are also a scarce international resource. The Airship Association counts only 30 to 40 people in the world now licensed to fly a blimp - meaning there are more astronauts around than airship pilots.
So in case you've ever wondered, here's some of what's going on up there - and on the ground to get the blimp up there, to where you see it over your beach.
The Horizon blimp - sponsored by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey - has its local base this summer at Woodbine Airport in Cape May County. In past summers, it has also had homes at Atlantic City's since-closed Bader Field and at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, but construction there forced the move south this summer.
A blimp takeoff is truly a hands-on operation, for lots of hands. To start a morning flight this week, a ground crew of six men - the "muscle," as McGuirk puts it, in his thick Australian accent - holds tightly onto the gondola and a series of ropes that dangle off the the airship, leading it away from the mast pole it spends its nights tethered tightly to, and into what's called a rolling takeoff.
Blimps can also do an "upship" takeoff, heading straight up from a tight spot on the ground. But with space to spare at its airport home, Dillard rolls into his liftoff on this hazy morning, with the ground crew jogging along, holding their lines even after he guns his twin, 80-horsepower Limbach motors to pick up speed.
"If you were building an airplane in your garage, this is the motor you'd use," the pilot says later. The engines can haul the 2,770-pound blimp up into a climb as fast as 1,600 feet a minute, and get it to a top speed of 45 mph, with a cruising speed about 32. But pilots can also cut back on their power - as they often do when they hover to cover golf tournaments, where silence is prized - and make the engines run so low, the airship can fly for an hour on just 3 gallons of fuel.
Dillard, a 21-year veteran of blimp flying, climbs easily over the trees that surround the airport, passes a sand-mining plant and other landmarks and heads off to the northeast, and the visitor-rich beaches of Ocean City.
Most of the point of Horizon putting its name and logo on the blimp each summer is for people to see that name and logo. Tom Rubino, a company spokesman, says the New Jersey-only Horizon uses the blimp to try to directly reach customers (or potential customers) who mostly live sandwiched between the hyper-expensive media markets of New York and Philadelphia.
So Dillard says that to keep his corporate customer happy, he has to take the blimp out on the busiest outdoor days -including every weekend and holiday - and in the nicest weather possible. Monday and Tuesday are the normal days off, and the blimp is supposed to fly 120 hours a month, which breaks down to about six hours a day, five days a week.
"But If I get rained out, I still owe you six hours, so I have to do 36 hours the next week," says Dillard, 58, who comes here from Orlando, Fla.
He hits the coast near southern Ocean City and hangs a left to head north, toward the Atlantic City skyline. The clouds in the sky cut down on the crowds on the beaches, but anyone who's down there has to spot the blimp floating overhead.
An airship is sensitive to thermal currents from below. So the ride over the inland pinelands is bumpy, because the surface of that sand plant is a different temperature from the trees surrounding it, and both are warmer than the creeks that squiggle crookedly out to the bay. But as soon as Dillard reaches the ocean, the blimp's handling smooths out considerably, because all that water down there is the same temperature.
That's true even though, by federal rules, he can go much lower over water, at 500 feet, than the 1,000 feet he needs to reach to fly over populated areas. Still, even at that over-ocean altitude, he is plenty high to look directly down on the fully-open parachute of a parasailing boat below, and to get a bird's-eye view of an osprey, or fish hawk, as it hunts its breakfast over the water.
The blimp leaves Ocean City behind and reaches Longport, then Margate and its landmark Lucy the Elephant, then passes the fishing piers in Margate and Ventnor on its way to Atlantic City's towers. To help a photographer riding along, Dillard climbs to head over the city, and passes the gleaming, gold exterior of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
"That just looks like money, doesn't it?" he says, into the headset microphone that blimp pilot and passengers need to hear each other over those two engines right behind the gondola's open windows.
Dillard swings the airship to the right when he reaches Absecon Inlet, passes near the new Revel resort - which wowed him and his wife when they visited on foot - and heads back down the coastline.
There are none of the dolphins the pilots can often see from above, and no whales - a rare but occasional sighting for them and their air passengers.
The Horizon blimp isn't in the business of taking paying customers out for tours. But Rubino, the company spokesman, says another way this "unique marketing tool" helps its sponsor is by letting Horizon support community groups in New Jersey, allowing those influential groups to hold charity auctions that offer a blimp ride as one of their prizes.
Horizon's blimp raised about $45,000 for good causes around the state last year, the company says, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Atlantic City. The company says rides have sold for anywhere from $100 to $1,500 this year - but Dillard has heard of a blimp ride fetching as much as $4,000 for a charity.
The single most common sight those passengers ask to see is their homes, the pilots say. But Atlantic City is another popular destination, and the New Jersey coastline itself is a big tourist draw too - just as it is down below.
After crossing Corsons Inlet and passing Strathmere, Dillard heads back inland. He's in steady radio contact with his ground crew as he heads home, updating them on his arrival time, because landings are even more labor-intensive than takeoffs for a blimp.
To slow down, the pilot shuts down one engine. As he noses downward over the last trees before the airport, his crew is lined up in an open V formation, waiting for a signal from the crew chief at the back. A blimp has no brakes, so people are the muscle to stop it too. As his wheels near touchdown, the human formation breaks toward him like a football team receiving a kickoff. Each man aims for a specific rope or spot on the gondola, with two crew members hitting the gondola almost like it's a tackling dummy.
When the blimp stops, Dillard doesn't even get out for a break. Two more passengers are waiting, one armed with a TV camera from a Philadelphia station.
If the weather cooperates, the Horizon blimp should be a regular sight over local skies again today and Sunday, but this is its last scheduled weekend of the year in South Jersey. After Monday, the crew is set to take the airship to its next base, in Sussex County, and it will stay up north until its annual New Jersey tour ends in September.
After that, it will fly it south for the winter - where its actual owner, The Lightship Group, will likely show a different sponsor's banner to crowds looking up at it from the ground.
Horizon's Rubino said this week that it's too soon to say if the blimp will be a frequent flyer in our skies again next summer, "But we think there's a good chance it will be."
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