Big blimpin': Piloting a 'homesick angel'

Story highlights

  • CNN rode high over Atlanta this week with Goodyear blimp pilot Matt Lussier
  • The helium-filled airship flies "slow and low" at about 2,000 feet
  • Takeoffs and landings are a different experience in the blimp

(CNN)It's New Year's Eve, and we're suspended 2,000 feet above Atlanta by an iconic bag of gas. It's kind of hard to believe I'm actually flying the Goodyear blimp.

For a guy with zero piloting experience, I have to ask: Is this legal?

"Yep," Goodyear pilot Matt Lussier says, sitting on my right. "I'm a certified instructor, and you're my student."

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Let me set the scene. High above the downtown Georgia Dome, where the Chick-fil-A Bowl is being played, Lussier, camera operator Tom O'Keefe and I are sitting in a tiny metal gondola with a passenger and cockpit area about 6 feet wide and 15 feet long. We're surrounded by windows, some of which are open.

Looking out those windows ... it's a loooooooong way down.

And winds out of the northwest at about 12 mph are making it a little chilly.

    We have to wear headphones to communicate with each other above the roar of the blimp's twin propeller engines. I don't mind telling you, it's more than a little unnerving.

    As Lussier put it more than once this night: "That's blimpin'!"

    In front of me on the floor are two pedals.

    "Put your feet on the pedals, and push the right pedal down about four inches," Lussier says. When I do this, the rubbery 192-foot-long aircraft slowly begins to turn right. "Now, push the right pedal all the way to the floor." As I do that, I'm surprised when the left pedal starts to push up against the sole of my left foot.

    Now, the blimp's right turn begins to speed up.

    Next, Lussier tells me to floor the other pedal -- the one under my left foot.

    Slowly, the lumbering airship reverses itself, bringing us back to a straight course.

    A wooden "elevator wheel" to the right of the pilot's seat is used to point the airship up or down. No fancy "fly-by-wire" electronics here. It blows my mind to think that the controls at my feet are directly connected by cables to the rudder and elevators on the blimp's tail.

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    My five minutes as a blimp pilot trainee hammered home this fact: These aircraft are the ships of the skies. They perform a lot like ships or even submarines, Lussier says. The wind is the equivalent of ocean currents.

    The 32-year-old Lussier, who's been "blimpin' " for Goodyear since 2011, answered some of CNN readers' blimp questions.

    I'll tick a few off:

    • Nope, no bathrooms aboard. It takes discipline.

    • No parachutes, either. The blimp flies too low for them to be effective safety equipment.

    • No seat belts. No oh s**t handles like you might find in an SUV.

    • The blimp does have Sirius/XM satellite radio, when the signal isn't blocked by the giant helium bag.

    • Via radio, an ESPN TV director orders specific beauty shots for the bowl broadcasts from Lussier and O'Keefe. Those images are beamed via microwave to a truck on the ground. Although we can't watch the ESPN broadcast, we can see O'Keefe's video on a cockpit monitor.

    • The blimp has the same cockpit indicators you'd expect on a plane, including altitude, speed and direction.

    • The blimp has radar to track nearby aircraft.

    • Rules call for the blimp to stay 1,000 feet above any obstacles, including skyscrapers, and 2,000 feet away horizontally.

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    I also got a heart-pounding first-hand look at what makes blimp takeoffs and landings so challenging.

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    But first, some of you wanted to know why an experienced airplane pilot like Lussier, who's been flying since his teen years in North Carolina, would shift his career from flying private corporate planes to a whole other kettle of fish: blimps.

    The answer: Lussier loves working with people. As a pilot, he wanted more than a job that flew passengers from point A to point B.

    Flying for Goodyear -- and showing off what's arguably the world's most iconic blimp -- means he and the other blimp crews help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for groups such as the Boys and Girls Club and the United Way. Hour-long blimp rides are auctioned off at fundraisers, and the money goes to help the needy.

    Lussier seems to have been born to fly. When he was 3, Lussier's mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I told her I wanted to be a bird. So I guess I found the next best thing: flying."

    He competed against about 1,600 other applicants to join Goodyear's blimp team, surviving a half-dozen interviews before he got the gig.

    "I don't want to fly anything else ever again," Lussier says. "It's absolutely my dream job."

    Blimpin' is all about appreciating the joy of flying "slow and low," as Lussier puts it -- sometimes so slow and so low that it's not unheard-of to be passed by flocks of Canada geese.

    While we regular travelers enjoy the comfort of being sealed away from the forces of nature in airline cabins, blimpin' puts Lussier closer to the true experience of flight. He loves to fly with the windows open. In hot weather, he'll often lean out the window at 2,000 feet to cool off.

    Helium heads

    Many of the blimp's controls and flight procedures are the same as airplanes. But airship aficionados, affectionately known as helium heads, know what really sets these machines apart: helium.

    The helium inside the blimp's giant gas bag, known as "the envelope," is lighter than air. It makes the blimp always want to rise, even when you're trying to land.

    "They're homesick angels," says Lussier.

    Airplanes take flight when wind rushes across and under their wings, pushing them into the air. With blimps, the lift of the helium creates a pulling sensation, as if a puppeteer is in control from above.

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    These homesick angels also have a devilish side: The helium and the wind can make takeoffs and landings very tricky.

    For some reason, I thought the takeoff would be more like a balloon ride, gently rising from the ground to our eventual altitude. The reality is a bit more dramatic.

    I'm not overstating it when I say this: Taking off in the blimp is a scary, thrilling, white-knuckle ride. On this night, Lussier performed one of blimpin's more difficult maneuvers: a "pull off."

    Blimps take off best by heading directly into the wind. But that's not always possible. A "pull off" is a trick that pilots use when obstacles stand in the way. In this case, the obstacles are a ditch and a huge mast that is used to tether the blimp.

    Using the rudder pedals, Lussier "threads the needle" between the two, steering the blimp like a boat crossing a river with a strong current.

    Next, using engine control levers with his left hand and the elevator wheel in his right hand, Lussier points the blimp's nose upward and guns the power.

    The blimp's two engines throttle up to a deafening roar as they push their propellers 2,800 revolutions per minute. Suddenly, I'm nearly on my back as Lussier points the blimp up at a 25-degree angle -- only 5 degrees short of maximum.

    Heeeeeeeere we go.

    The airship ascends at 1,500 to 2,000 feet per minute. In no time at all, we're 1,000 feet high and beginning to level off.

    Here come the Zeppelins

    At the stroke of midnight, hours after our rumbling takeoff, we find ourselves looking down at the city's traditional giant "peach" drop. This might well be the most unusual New Year's transition I'll ever see.

    2014 also will be unique for Goodyear.

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    It plans to begin phasing out the GZ-20A blimps -- like I'm riding in -- and replacing them with high-tech Goodyear NTs. These sleek, new bad boys are co-produced by the maker of the famous Zeppelin airships of the early 20th century. Goodyear NTs will have internal frameworks, unlike blimps, which will allow the fleet to go faster and maneuver better than ever before.

    Eventually, Goodyear's current fleet of three iconic blimps will retire -- perhaps, some speculate, to become museum exhibits.

    Of course, the usefulness of airships extends way beyond broadcasting and promotional purposes.

    A U.S.-based company called Aeros is developing a new kind of airship that would carry cargo long distances over the Arctic. The defense industry has also been working on an airship that would carry heavy military equipment and be able to land or takeoff from virtually any terrain. The Pentagon tested a surveillance blimp in 2012.

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    Those airship applications are taking off, but after more than six hours aboard the Spirit of Innovation, I'm ready to experience a blimp landing.

    Atlanta's brightly lit skyline is dotted with spectacular orange, red and green fireworks shooting into the air far below as we motor toward DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

    Obviously, planes rely on gravity to bring them down to Earth. With blimps, not so much, because the helium makes them want to keep going up. "You drive it down; you don't fly it down," Lussier explains.

    A weather event called a temperature inversion is going to make this landing a little more challenging. This happens when warmer air traps cooler air near the ground. The cooler air will cause a blimp to lift when it approaches a landing strip.

    The runway looms large in our windshield, about 100 feet under the gondola.

    To cut the blimp's tendency to lift, Lussier comes down low to let the chilly air near the ground cool his helium. Then we circle back around for a landing attempt.

    "We'd better try to stay above airport property," Lussier says. We'd very much like to avoid any surprise New Year's Eve fireworks from the neighbors. Should I be nervous?

    Armed with red flashlights, a 15-member Goodyear ground crew lines up along the airstrip and grabs the rope lines hanging from our blimp.

    Lussier aborts our first landing attempt, a common occurrence. Circling back, we try again.

    As the wheel under the gondola hits the pavement, you hear a comforting shushhhhhhhh as Lussier reverses engines to slow us down.

    This unforgettable ride is done. All in all, we've burned about 62 gallons of "100 Low-Lead" airplane fuel.

    The next day, the crew will pack up its five-vehicle convoy and follow the Spirit of Innovation as it flies toward Florida for another college bowl. There, they plan to do it all over again, practicing a century-old profession unique among aviators.

    Like Lussier says: That's blimpin'!