What's with all the BLIMPS! 

Before shipping out on a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, U.S. Navy Seabee Angel Seaz wanted to arrange a romantic outing with his fiancée, Karen Alvarez. So Seaz contacted a local Saturn dealer and finagled a ride for the couple on the company's blimp.

"She loved it," says a smiling Seaz after exiting the candy-apple-red airship at the conclusion of their Sunday morning flight over Orlando.

Who wouldn't? Everybody loves blimps. And the fact that the world's largest and most successful blimp company is right here in Orlando may be one of The City Beautiful's best-kept secrets.

Saturn leases its blimp from the world's largest and most successful purveyor of airships, the Lightship Group. The company's headquarters are housed in a nondescript office building off Kirkman Road.

"This company truly dominates the blimp business," explains Mickey Wittman, director of client services for the Lightship Group.

The Lightship Group has annual revenues of $20 million and 300 employees, about half of whom work as members of ground crews that spend up to seven months a year following various airships from city to city -- call them blimp roadies.

As Wittman answers questions, the Saturn blimp (or Lightship, as company officials refer to their airships) could be seen floating over I-4 from the window of his third-story office.

Wittman, a seasoned blimp industry veteran, is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with one of the blimps of his former employer, Goodyear. "I helped install the first TV cameras on a blimp back in the 1960s," Wittman recalls. He has been all over the globe in the ponderous airships, including a memorable tour of Australia and a flight over the English Channel during a journey from London to Paris. After working with Goodyear for more than 30 years, he retired and accepted a job with the Lightship Group.

Goodyear is indisputably the granddaddy of blimps. The Akron, Ohio-based tire company has been flying its majestic airships since 1925 and they ruled the skies with virtually no competition for decades after World War II.

But Goodyear has fallen on hard times. The company lost $1.3 billion in the past two years, forcing it to eliminate thousands of jobs. Compounding matters from a public relations viewpoint, its famed blimps have been involved in three crashes during the past four years.

Since its founding in 1995 as a joint venture between Virgin Atlantic Airways mogul Richard Branson and American Blimp Corp., the Lightship Group has left Goodyear in the dust.

The Lightship Group owns more than half of the 35 or so blimps operating in the world today. Not counting the "Spirit of America" airship that was damaged in a Dec. 3 crash, Goodyear currently has two blimps flying in the United States and one in Brazil that it leases from the Lightship Group.

Wittman said a key reason behind the Lightship Group's success was its development of smaller, more economical airships. The design also featured an innovative internal lighting system that enables its blimps to glow in the dark, thus the moniker Lightships.

The Lightships cost less than $2 million to build at American Blimp Corp.'s facility in Oregon.

Like flying manatees

The Saturn blimp hung around in the skies over Orlando for several weeks this winter. "It definitely generates interest," says Sabrina Case, a spokeswoman for the Saturn of Orlando dealership.

In addition to Saturn and Goodyear, the Lightship Group's roster of clients includes Sanyo, Pepsi, MetLife, Hood Dairy, a New Jersey-based health insurance provider and a Japanese advertising firm.

For advertising and branding purposes, Wittman says you can't beat a blimp in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.

"They are basically moveable billboards that are loveable."

Wittman spent several minutes ticking off the marketing accomplishments that corporations have achieved through leasing Lightships.

For instance, sales for Pepsi's new bottled water, Aquafina, increased 11 percent in cities where its Lightship appeared earlier this year. Whitman's Chocolates in Australia experienced a sales increase of 240 percent above expectations during and after their Lightship campaign, catapulting them to the No. 1 spot in the market.

Why such positive feelings about blimps? Wittman believes it's because the slow-moving airships have an odd shape that makes them benign and unthreatening -- like a manatee in flight.

Lightship's clients also benefit from TV executives' insatiable desire for images from airborne cameras mounted on blimps. While airships have long been a fixture at sporting events like golf tournaments and football games, they are increasingly being used for prime-time entertainment.

Sanyo's Lightship was on hand for this year's Oscar awards and the Saturn Lightship is slated to provide aerial views of spring break festivities in Panama City for MTV.

Back in the realm of sports, blimps will be on hand for the opening of new stadiums in Philadelphia and San Diego when the baseball season begins.

"It's not a big event unless there's a blimp there," Wittman says.

(One recent event where blimps were conspicuously absent, however, was the Daytona 500 that President Bush attended. Perhaps someone in the Secret Service remembered seeing "Black Sunday," the campy 1977 flick in which Bruce Dern plays a psychotic Vietnam vet who attempts to pilot a bomb-laden blimp into Miami's Orange Bowl while the president and thousands of spectators watch the Super Bowl.)

In exchange for ferrying TV cameras, the companies leasing the Lightships usually receive at least 30 seconds of free advertising during the course of a game or program.

During Sanyo's seven-year relationship with the Lightship Group, its blimp has received hours of TV exposure, boasted company vice president Alan Foster.

"It has done what we wanted," says Foster, whose company sells more televisions than anyone else in North America despite the fact that it spends no money on advertising other than its lease with the Lightship Group. "I get e-mails from people all over the country who have seen our blimp."

It appears Sanyo has made a wise investment. According to Wittman, the cost of leasing a Lightship and its ground crew for three months is roughly $400,000. Compare that to the $1.3 million price tag for a 30-second commercial during the Oscars.

After nearly a decade of rapid growth, the Lightship Group is poised to conquer new markets overseas. Wittman said the company hopes to start flying Lightships in China this summer and is also eyeing opportunities in India.

Though its dominance may be a part of the past, Goodyear blimp spokeswoman Jennifer Arnold insisted that her company's airships remain an "American icon."

"We've seen blimps come and go," she says. "We're here for the long haul."

A bird's-eye view

With pilot Jose Bernaola at the controls, the Saturn Lightship makes a steep ascent from Orlando Executive Airport. A former flight instructor from Daytona Beach, he is among only about 50 licensed blimp pilots in the United States

Leveling off at 1,000 feet above the East-West Expressway, Bernaola heads for the Universal Studios theme parks. Peering out the rear window of the blimp's gondola, the most striking feature of Orlando as viewed from a blimp is the number of lakes dotting the urban landscape.

The six passengers on our flight -- all of whom received invitations from Saturn of Orlando -- wear headphones equipped with microphones that allow us to converse with Bernaola.

This model is one of the larger Lightships, measuring 165 feet in length and 55 feet in height. Its envelope contains 150,000 cubic feet of helium.

From our vantage point, the Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure looks puny. After hovering over Universal for a few minutes, Bernaola invites me to sit in the co-pilot's seat while he steers the blimp towards the skyline of downtown Orlando.

The controls in the cockpit of a blimp are quite different than those found in an airplane. Bernaola uses his right hand to spin a wheel beside his seat that controls the airship's elevation. Spin the wheel forward and the nose of the blimp dips; spin it backward and the nose rises. Two pedals on the floor shift the craft's rudder, enabling the airship to execute a right or left turn. There also are two radios -- one to communicate with air traffic controllers and the other to maintain constant contact with the blimp's ground crew.

Due to a strong headwind, the airship is only traveling at 23 mph with both engines at full throttle. "This is a nice job -- unless you're in hurry. We don't go anywhere very fast," Bernaola says.

Too much or too little wind also can making landings a challenge. But snow and ice are even more dangerous for blimps, adding extra weight that can force them to crash. That's why airships, like snowbirds, head south for the winter to Florida or southern California.

As our hour-long flight comes to an end, members of the ground crew take their positions near the southeast corner of Orlando Executive Airport. Bernaola cuts the engines and the Lightship's gondola touches down softly. Six crew members grab two large ropes attached to the blimp's nose and then hold on for dear life while we disembark and another group of passengers climbs on board for the next flight.

I've been fortunate to ride on three blimps during the past decade and each time returning to terra firma has felt depressing, akin to saying so long to a good friend whose visit was cut too short.

Bigger is not better

In terms of size, today's blimps are trifles compared to their predecessors that plied the skies during the 1930s. But the modern airships are safer.

The two largest blimps ever built in the United States were the USS Akron and the USS Macon. Measuring 785 feet in length, both airships contained 6.5 million cubic feet of helium -- more than 40 times the amount in the Saturn Lightship. Commissioned by the U.S. Navy, the vessels carried five sparrow hawk biplanes in their bellies that could be launched and retrieved during flight.

Unfortunately, the Akron and Macon each had a brief and ill-fated existence.

The Akron completed its maiden voyage around Cleveland on Sept. 23, 1931. On a flight off New England on April 4, 1933, the airship encountered a severe storm and crashed tail-first into the Atlantic during the middle of the night. Rear Admiral William A. Moffett and two other sailors perished.

Less than three weeks later, the Macon left Akron, Ohio on its first voyage. Based at a naval air station near San Jose, Calif., it successfully completed 53 flights. On Feb. 11, 1934, a strong crosswind sheared off the upper fins of its tail and the doomed airship descended helplessly into the Pacific. Eighty-one of the 83 crew members survived the crash.

The origins of motorized airships date back to 1852 when French inventor Henri Giffard installed a three-horsepower steam engine on his 145-foot dirigible. In 1901, Albert Santos-Dumont won acclaim for circling the Eiffel Tower in a non-rigid airship.

But it is Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who is best known as the father of modern blimps. In 1899, he started building the first guidable rigid airship. His work sparked a public euphoria and between 1909 and 1914 German blimps transported 35,000 passengers on more than 1,500 flights without incident.

Although von Zeppelin died in 1917, the company he helped create would go on to build the world's biggest and most famous blimp: the Hindenburg (see below).

Blimps of the future

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal officials are embracing blimps as an aerial surveillance tool.

Blimps have maintained an eye on Fleet Week activities in New York City for the past two years. At last summer's baseball All-Star game in Chicago, two FBI agents were aboard the Lightship circling above Comiskey Park.

Wittman, the Lightship Group spokesman, says that the powerful cameras mounted on blimps -- capable of seeing the letters and stitching on a football from several hundred feet above a stadium -- are ideally suited to incorporate face-recognition technology.

Engineers at Lockheed Martin are working on the next generation of blimps. As part of a recently awarded $40 million contract with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the company is designing a solar-powered High-Altitude Airship. Hovering 12 miles above the Earth, the unmanned airship would use high-tech sensors to detect incoming missiles from as far as 350 miles in any direction.

A prototype, which would be 25 times larger than the Goodyear blimps built by Lockheed Martin, could be ready for a test flight in 2006, company spokesman Cary Dell said.

Dell said the High-Altitude Airship would have several advantages over existing satellites, including the ability to return to land and move to different locations.

Experts believe that these blimps also could improve cell phone service and wireless Internet access in rural areas.

Thrill of the big top

Airships visiting Central Florida typically camp out at Orlando Executive Airport, which charges them a daily fee of $25 to $40 for this privilege.

But these token payments aren't the reason that Kevin McNamara gets excited. Like most people, the director of general aviation for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority simply likes blimps. "It's kind of like the circus coming to town," McNamara says.

'Oh, the humanity ...'

Completed in 1936 after four years of construction, the swastika-adorned Hindenburg was 13 stories tall and just 78 feet shorter than the equally infamous Titanic. Unlike its American counterparts of that era, which used helium to get off the ground, the Hindenburg carried hydrogen, 7 million cubic feet of it. Although hydrogen provides excellent lifting ability, it is exceptionally flammable.

Decked out with 25 luxurious two-person cabins, the airship also featured lavish dining areas and a piano lounge. The cost of a one-way passage from Germany to the United States was $400 -- about the same as a new car at the time. Almost every flight during its first year of operation was sold out.

The Hindenburg left Germany on May 3 for its first transatlantic flight of 1937. It flew over Manhattan three days later on the way to its destination in Lakehurst, N.Y.

Upon reaching Lakehurst, the huge airship slowed to a stop at an elevation of 260 feet. Two handling lines were dropped at 7:21 p.m. and the ground crew raced forward to grab the ropes. Four minutes later, a tiny flame appeared in front of the Hindenburg's vertical fin. The ship caught fire in seconds.

Herbert Morrison of WLS Radio in Chicago was on the scene and he described what happened next in one of history's most legendary broadcasts: "Oh my, get out of the way, please! It is burning, bursting into flames and is falling on the mooring mast and all the folks ... this is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world ... . It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen ... . Oh, the humanity and all the passengers ... ."

Within about 30 seconds, the Hindenburg crashed to the ground, engulfed in flames. Sixty-two of the airship's 97 occupants somehow managed to survive. Thirteen passengers, 22 crew members and a member of the ground crew died.

Although sabotage was suspected, a leaky gas cell and a discharge of static electricity probably caused the fiery mishap.

World War II: Blimp battles U-boat

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military ordered the construction of 200 blimps to patrol for enemy submarines prowling along our coastlines. In 1942 alone, German U-boats sank 547 merchant ships off the East Coast.

The Richmond Naval Air Station, 20 miles southwest of downtown Miami, became the world's largest blimp base. Spread over 2,100 acres, it was home to 900 personnel and 25 blimps.

At dusk on July 18, 1943, two of the Navy's blimps set out to escort a tanker and a freighter through the Florida Straits. The airships were armed with a 50-caliber machine gun and four depth charges.

Around 11:30 p.m. a blip appeared on the radar screen in the blimp carrying Lt. Nelson Grills and his nine-member crew. Emerging from a bank of clouds, they spotted a U-boat on the surface cruising directly toward the two ships, which were less than half an hour away.

The blimp descended to 250 feet to engage the enemy. Crew members standing watch on the German sub spotted the approaching airship. The ensuing battle, the only one of its kind during World War II, lasted only five minutes.

The U-boat opened fire with 20 mm machine guns and an 80 mm deck gun. Although its depth charges failed to deploy, the blimp gamely fought back with its machine gun. Reeling from the attack, the airship limped away. But both of its engines were damaged and it started losing altitude.

The blimp settled into the water at 11:55 p.m. and began to sink. After radioing in a "Mayday", the crew members donned life vests and abandoned ship. Lt. Grills became separated from them and was swept away by a strong current.

The rest of his men spent the night bobbing in the waves next to the blimp's deflated bag.

The next morning they waved frantically to a search aircraft. A rescue helicopter was immediately dispatched to the scene.

But the chopper didn't arrive in time to save bombardier Isadore Stessel, who was attacked by a shark. Lt. Grills spent 19 hours in the water before he was rescued.

The U-boat, which sustained significant damage during the skirmish, was eventually sunk by two Royal Air Force bombers while making its way to a base in France for repairs.

In 1945, a powerful hurricane hit the Richmond Naval Air Station, destroying all 25 blimps.


More by Kirk Brown


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