Goodyear blimp ride like being at sea

'Spirit of Innovation' in Atlanta for SEC Championship

It doesn't take Matthew St. John long to come up with his favorite part of his job. It's the view. Really, what other answer could there be?

St. John, a pilot on the Goodyear blimp Spirit of Innovation, said he usually spends two or three hours daily in the sky, hovering over stadiums or taking jaunts in the 4-year-old craft.

"You get in a Zen-like state," he says. "You kind of relax."

The blimp, based in Pompano Beach, Fla., is in town this weekend for the SEC championship game between Auburn and South Carolina. And before St. John and his co-pilots set up above the Georgia Dome on Saturday, they invited me and Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer Jason Getz to Hampton for a ride.

From the ground, the blimp looks gigantic. When it lands in front of you, it's even larger.

The helium-propelled airship is a 192-foot beached whale. A pilot guides the blimp down, but it doesn't truly land. When it nears the ground, a team of 20 crew members catch tethers that hang off the blimp, holding it down. It drifts slightly in the sky.

We chase the blimp down, hopping up a movable step ladder to arrive in the gondola -- a seven-seat cab suspended below the airship. The seats are comfortable, upholstered in blue fabric with yellow dots. The car is heated; there is plenty of leg room. We have no seat belts, and St. John flies the blimp with the windows open. I stick my hand out, feel the wind rushing through my fingers. Inside, it isn't breezy until we turn into a gust.

When we first depart, St. John guns it, tilting the nose high in the air. I'm tipped back in my seat, looking up at the wide expanse of sky. The blimp runs off aviation gasoline, but it's the helium -- $65,000 worth -- that keeps it afloat. He steers it like a boat, a large wheel adjacent to his seat elevating the ship, foot pedals allowing him to move it left and right. In truth, the captain's seat looks much like a wheelchair.

We steady ourselves at 1,100 feet. It's the point, if you're in a plane, when you realize you're about to land. You can tell what color cars are driving by and whether the houses have swing sets in their backyards. We're roughly over Fayetteville but can see both Atlanta and Stone Mountain in the distance. The windshield is a picture window we gaze out of.

"It's fun flying low," St. John says. "Down here, you can see a lot."

Including our own enormous shadow, which seems surreal from the sky.

There's a constant buzzing in the background, loud enough that we wear headphones to make conversation easier, but not so loud that the noise is suffocating. Without them, it's like being in the back seat of a car with the windows down. If the people in front shout, you can hear it, but it's easier not to talk over the road.

St. John was a commercial airline pilot before he started flying blimps, but this is more like captaining a ship. The airship pitches and rolls in the sky, gently rocking like a boat in waves. It functions more like a submarine than a plane -- displacing air like that vessel would displace water. The blimp's top speed is 53 mph; we're cruising around 40.

On a full tank of gas, the blimp can stay up for 17 hours. With all that helium, it is rarely deflated. When it goes from one event to another, St. John and other pilots fly it there, usually maxing out at eight hours daily in the sky. The trip back to Pompano Beach will take two days.

The blimp is an arcane form of flight, St. John says, but still one that grabs the imagination. He estimates there are about 10 active blimps in the United States -- both DirecTV and MetLife use them for promotional purposes, and Goodyear has others stationed near its Akron, Ohio, headquarters and in California and China. The company has used them since 1925.

"You don't see a lot of airships," St. John says. "They have a mystique about them. That mystique, it captures you. It's like a magnet to your memory."

After we land, we scurry down the ladder and dash behind the crew members who are holding the blimp steady. It takes off again quickly, with new invitation-only passengers. And just like that, the ride is over. St. John is right. You get in a Zen-like state.

On the ground, we talk to Corky Belanger, another pilot. His father also helmed a Goodyear blimp, but familiarity doesn't take away the airship's glamour.

"It's always exciting. You get that shock and awe," he says. "It never gets smaller. It's an American icon. That never goes away."