SBJ/June 23-29, 2014/Marketing and Sponsorship

‘I got to fly the blimp’

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SportsBusiness Journal’s David Broughton had an opportunity to ride along on MetLife’s Snoopy One in late March. The airship was coming to Charlotte for a MetLife corporate appearance, but before it made that trip, it took to the air with Broughton on board, giving him a firsthand look at how the blimp operates. This is his story. Click here for a slideshow of Broughton’s day aboard Snoopy One.

MetLife's Snoopy One Airship is tethered at Gastonia (N.C.) Municipal Airport in March.

I arrived at 8:45 a.m. at Gastonia Municipal Airport, a two-runway facility 10 miles west of Charlotte. It was 36 degrees, unseasonably cold for late March, and the wind was blowing south-southeast about 8 miles per hour.

That’s not a detail I usually notice, or share — but it’s an important one in the blimp business.

Mark Finney, chief pilot with Van Wagner Airship Group, was the man running the show for this trip. Van Wagner owns more blimps (eight) than any other company worldwide, and MetLife’s three Snoopy-named ships are part of that fleet. The affable Brit gave me the warnings that are standard for blimp newcomers. First, he told me about the frequent “thudding” I’d hear coming from the wall behind the seats once aboard. That will be the “elevators,” he said, the pilot-controlled fins that control the blimp’s up and down pitch. Second, although the blimp’s nose is tethered, the blimp never really lands.

“There’s a small step ladder attached to the cabin, but keep your eyes on the steps,” Finney said. “Sometimes, people are so excited that they are getting on a blimp that their eyes are looking up into the cabin.” The risk, he said, is that even the slightest wind can move the giant balloon, leaving you stepping on air.

Snoopy One in-flight pilot Andrew Murray and SportsBusiness Journal's David Broughton in the air over Gastonia, N.C.

In addition to Finney, the 13-man traveling crew consisted of Andrew Murray, who would be the in-flight pilot for this trip, two aircraft mechanics, two crew chiefs and seven ground crew members. The trip’s related vehicle caravan consisted of two Ford F-350s with two trailers (with restrooms) and a small van with a luggage trailer.

Snoopy One does not have a permanent home; it lives outside, tethered when not in flight to a 30-foot-high pole, almost all year.

The team had spent the weekend in Orlando covering the PGA Tour Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. They spent nearly seven hours traveling 260 miles after that to tether down in Tifton, Ga.

“We were planning on making it a little further [to Ashburn, Ga., 20 miles north], but heard that they only had one bar,” Finney said.

The crew left Tifton Wednesday morning for the 360-mile, 10.5-hour trek to Gastonia. Although Snoopy One had been to Charlotte before (for PGA Tour events), this visit had nothing to do with sports. MetLife wanted Snoopy One in Charlotte on Thursday afternoon for the ribbon-cutting of the new headquarters for its U.S. retail division.

■ ■ ■

Having remembered Finney’s warning about the steps, I boarded without incident.

I had been researching the business of blimps for a couple weeks by this point, and the few folks I had talked with who had actually ridden in a blimp did not hesitate to describe the interior of the cabin that I was now seeing for myself. “Spartan” and “like the inside of an old minivan” were two of the more flattering descriptions I had heard, and they pretty much nailed it. My ride for the next couple hours would be in a compartment that measured about 8.5 feet long by 5 feet wide, and about 6.5 feet high.

We put our headsets on to drown out the roughly 110-decibel noise level created by the two 80-horsepower engines, and communicating by hand signals, Murray indicated to his ground crew that we were ready. The crew had already detached the mooring ropes and now began pulling the ship toward the runway.

Murray, my pilot, has been flying for 10 years. He joined Van Wagner Airship Group in 2010 to help develop its new banner-towing base in Los Angeles and then made the transition to airship line pilot in 2012.

The Charlotte skyline, BBT&T Ballpark (left) and Bank of America Stadium
Photo by: DAVID BROUGHTON / STAFF WRITER 

He explained the basics of driving a blimp: The pilot operates paddleboat-like pedals with his feet to move the ship’s rudder for movement left and right. (Murray wears non-slip Skechers work sneakers.) Wheels reminiscent of a pirate ship’s steering device are attached to either side of his seat and are spun forward or backward to push the ship’s nose up or down.

Once in the air, our trip east to Charlotte from Gastonia would take us over the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium and the new BB&T Ballpark, home of the Class AAA Charlotte Knights. At a height of about 1,100 feet and a cruising speed of about 35 miles per hour, I asked Murray what led him to be a blimp pilot rather than a commercial pilot. He smiled and just looked around at the view with his arms spread. He explained that, for him, the length of time it takes to become a tenured pilot and earn the salary that comes with that status doesn’t justify the expense of becoming a pilot.

So, even though he has only been flying blimps for two years, does Van Wagner make it worth his while, I asked.

“They take good care of me,” he smiled, and left it at that.

In fact, throughout the two-hour flight, Murray smiled a lot. It disappeared for a moment when I asked him what sporting event he most enjoyed hovering over. He couldn’t think of one. But then, the smile came back.

“The great thing about this job is I get to share my passion for flying with people who are excited to be here,” he said, almost as if he just realized it. “I like doing sports, but that’s actually work. What is so rewarding, not just for me, for all of us, I think, are the charity rides our company gives.”

After this trip, Snoopy One’s next destination was a charity event in Atlanta, en route to Houston to cover the PGA Tour Shell Houston Open for The Golf Channel and NBC.

■ ■ ■

To get to downtown Charlotte from Gastonia required a trip directly across multiple runways of what the Federal Aviation Administration ranks as the eighth-busiest airport in the country. Murray radioed the air traffic controller at Charlotte Douglas International Airport shortly after we lifted off to request the crossover.

The chatter heard over the headset during the 15 minutes we had to wait to cross was entertaining. (A side note: The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department owns two helicopters. Their names: Snoopy 1 and Snoopy 2, which Murray said makes things a little confusing if there is a controller in the tower who has never dealt with MetLife’s Snoopy blimps before.)

Over Charlotte Douglas International Airport, air traffic control warned incoming jets for the aircraft's presence as it prepared to cross the runways.
Photo by: DAVID BROUGHTON / STAFF

The controller warned incoming jets, in air-traffic lingo, that there was an aircraft that would appear to be stationary on everyone’s radar that was waiting to cross the runways and that everyone should maintain visual contact. As everyone acknowledged our presence, every once in a while, a commercial pilot would radio directly to us and ask, “Are you a blimp?”

When we finally received clearance to cross, the controller asked us if we were in town for a sporting event. Murray told him why we were here and that we would need to cross back over in about an hour.

The controller acknowledged our request — and then added, “I want a ride sometime.”

Being in the sports business, we’ve all seen kids, and some adults, get star-struck when meeting a favorite player. When the blimp flies over your neighborhood, we’re all 8 years old again.

We flew over the city and its two stadiums, along with SportsBusiness Journal headquarters and the Charlotte Bobcats’ Time Warner Cable Arena, and then we headed back to Gastonia.

Eventually, Murray decided that the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Florida was probably the nicest sports scene he had hovered above. His least favorite? Ironically, MetLife Stadium. Murray said the presence of three major airports near the New York Jets’ and Giants’ stadium means there is too much air traffic and noise to enjoy the experience.

Crossing back over the landscape of the Charlotte airport was easier, and shortly after, I was unexpectedly asked to display the training skills I had been taught over the past 90 minutes by my instructor.

I got to fly the blimp.

Murray said it is almost impossible to crash a blimp — almost? — and that if both engines suddenly failed, the ship would begin to descend but would actually decelerate.

After about 10 minutes, my piloting “career” came to an end, and Murray resumed control of his ship for the conclusion of the two-hour trip. He explained that no two landings are alike. Looking below, I saw the ground crew lined up in a “V” shape. That was to indicate the direction of the wind at ground level. The blimp would land inside the “V.”

The ground crew forms a "V" to indicate the direction of the wind at ground level.
Photo by: DAVID BROUGHTON / STAFF

Just then, the wind picked up unexpectedly.

Murray had explained earlier that every air pocket had the potential of heating (or cooling) all or part of the balloon and that while planes are designed to slice through such areas of turbulence, balloons are not. To me, it sounded like being a catcher for a knuckleball pitcher.

We got tossed around for 7 or 8 minutes as he spun and pedalled. As we neared the ground, the crew flanked the ship, grabbing the mooring ropes to slow us down as two members rushed to the nose to help stop us. All very high tech, I mused.

It was 11 a.m. My two-hour ride had come to an end, and the crew had an hour on the ground before they had to begin their flight to MetLife’s new retail division headquarters in south Charlotte, where they would then spend the afternoon hovering above that MetLife campus.

When Finney asked if I enjoyed joining the small rank of people who had gone for a ride, I told him how surprised I was that so few of the dozens of people I had spoken to for this story knew how the business side of a blimp’s sports operations worked — but even fewer had actually ridden in a blimp.

His response to the latter, which was repeated to me later by others, was simple:

“We’re all working. We get into town Wednesday night for a race or tournament, and so does everyone else. For them, the event starts; for us, we get to work. When the weekend is over, we all go home or on to the next event.”

Leaving the folks on the ground to keep thinking about their bucket list.


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