I remember very clearly one day looking up when I was about 13 or 14 and just thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Our house was on one of the approaches into Philadelphia International Airport, and I thought,That’s what I want to do.
I went to Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., and got a business degree there. I had my own amusement center, a game center. I was a professional foosball player for a while, traveling around the country. We had a trailer with a table. We’d stop to camp, set up a stereo and practice.
After four years, it just wasn’t working out. I got a second degree in aviation technology from Embry-Riddle. My first job was on the blimp’s ground crew.
I was really looking forward to flying it, even though it was so slow. A lot of things open up inside us that make us say “wow” when we see a blimp. Even though it looks relaxing from the ground, it’s not always smooth sailing.
You have to adapt a different personality to pilot it, more like a sailor versus a power boater. You have to be much more patient. I grew up on sailboats and had experience with the wind. That helped.
Think about the side of the blimp. It’s just like a great big sail. If the wind isn’t hitting the nose, it’s just going to push the blimp around.
You have to bring your game up. There’s no relaxing. You cannot let your attention be anywhere else than with every change in the wind.
You have to be able to feel how the ship’s doing before the instruments tell you what it is doing. If you’ve got to think about it, you’re behind.
The part of your body that requires the most effort is your legs. It’s a couple of hundred pounds of pressure to just get the darn things to move, the rudders.
Probably one of the tightest places to land the airship is at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
One time, back in 1992 or something like that, we were doing some TV event. Maybe it was a Yankees game, or a Jets game possibly.
We were flying from Akron to New York. I started to think about the landing over Pittsburgh. You’re looking at a 12- to 14-hour flight from Akron to New Jersey, so I was thinking about that landing for many hours.
Teterboro has obstacles on three sides, and its main runway is right in front of where we were going to moor the ship. During the landing, I was going to have to back the blimp up — not the most comfortable thing for a pilot.
Just before we could get the cable hooked up from the ship to the mooring mast, there was this really bad wind shift. We just started going faster and faster. The tree line kept getting closer. I called the tower, and I just told them I had to make an emergency takeoff.
There’s always enough time, but you may run out of distance. I knew there was a good chance things could go terribly wrong. But I pulled up, circled around, and I was able to bring the ship in smoothly on my second try.
It takes five or six years of flying the blimp before you start to feel relatively comfortable with it. It’s just been my job. But it’s also something that, if you don’t want to spend the next 15 minutes explaining what you do, you don’t bring up every day.
I had always wanted to fly fighters and here I am flying blimps. Go figure.