Lessons learned in blimp

Published 11:56 pm Friday, July 3, 2009

“What if I brought a well-behaved 9-year-old and moderately well-behaved 5-year-old with me?”

That was my response to an invitation to take a ride last weekend in the Wind Creek Casino blimp. I was a little surprised, but pleased to receive a very gracious “yes.”

Initially, the idea had no appeal for me. But a friend’s well-put question put it in perspective: “How many people do you know who have ridden in a blimp?”

It couldn’t have fallen into place any better: My niece and nephew were already scheduled to take a road trip with “Aunt ‘Chele,” so we just arranged an earlier departure date. No sooner were we in the car together than Christopher, the 5-year-old, spotted the airship in the Montgomery skyline.

Soon, we were up, up and away and getting a lesson in airships. The pilot, Carl Harbuck of Anniston, holds the world record for airship endurance flight at 24 hours, 39 minutes, 55 seconds, non-stop, no refuel. The record came in a test for the military post 9-11, when the armed forces was seeking a means for low-flying surveillance options.

Capt. Carl is a former Army helicopter pilot who trained at Ft. Rucker. There are more astronauts than licensed airship pilots, we learned.

The most difficult part of airship flight is landing. A ground crew travels with the blimp and when it lands, the crew rushes out to catch the tethers.

When the blimp travels cross-country, like in its recent California-to-Alabama trip, the ground crew travels with it, meeting it at pre-appointed landing sites. The blimp’s cruising speed is 32 mph, or 28 knots, and can travel up to 48 mph with favorable winds.

This blimp features a video lightsign, and is one of only three of its kind in the world.

Blimps are so frequently reported as UFOs that the agency responsible for tracking unidentified flying objects calls the airship agency for a quick “Where are you flying today,” when it receives a report.

“Wanta see a trick?” Capt. Carl asked, then cut the engine and we were quietly floating about the state Capitol. No noise – just blissful silence.

Back on the ground, I explained to the children that adventures like this one are among the perks of working in the media, and that I would be writing about the trip. What did they think I should tell people?

“You have to be balanced,” the 5-year-old said. “And if you turn off the engine, you don’t fall out of the sky.”

There’s an object lesson there for all of us, I’m sure. Keeping balance in our lives helps us keep floating along.