Like most reasonable people, I have a healthy fear of heights. But when you get a chance to ride a blimp, you take the chance to ride a blimp.
Oddly enough, the water-based Carnival Cruise Lines offered me that chance. This blimp was a blip, part of a campaign to promote its first new ship to “homeport” in California in 20 years, the Carnival Panorama. And what better way to promote a water ship than an AirShip cruising through the skies of Las Vegas?
There was just enough space in the cabin for a few intrepid journalists. For a day or two before the flight, I was nervous. But I was determined to ignore my inhibitions. Fear has kept me from attempting any of the roller coasters on the Strip. And once, I even missed the chance to bathe in a natural hot spring at Lake Mead because I was too chicken to climb a 20-foot ladder. The roller coasters and the ladder will always be there. But the blimp opportunity would fly away if I didn’t grab it.
Of course, there is a waiver. I signed it. If the worst happened, a piece of paper, signed or unsigned, wouldn’t protect me.
The blimp took off from an enormous stretch of desert and hangar space near the North Las Vegas Airport. On the way there, I first glimpsed the blimp. As it lifted off, I snapped cell phone photos through the windshield, as if catching proof of a rare bird. The pictures looked like crap, but I couldn’t stop snapping.
Las Vegas Sun photographer Steve Marcus and I drove directly onto the airfield at the Cheyenne Air Center. Fortunately, TSA has not encroached upon the blimp circuit.
When the 128-foot-long blimp descended, it was like watching the moon when it appears super-huge, right at the horizon. Or perhaps it was like seeing a blue whale up close. It was out of this world—sublime, and not the '90s rock band, but the older definition of the word used to describe the sense of awe you get when looking at a mountain.
“We don’t trust the windsock; who knows the last time it was greased,” said longtime airship pilot Terry Dillard. He wore a baseball cap that said Blimpin’ Ain’t Easy. When the blimp was about to land, his guys stood in a giant V on the airfield in the direction of the wind. If the wind changed, they’d shift to meet the wind. The team is a human windsock. And they were also standing by, ready to catch the ropes hanging from the blimp when it lands.
Unlike airplanes, which fight against gravity, blimps, with their giant pouch of lighter-than-air helium, must fight against levity. When it’s time to switch out passengers, it’s not like an elevator, where everybody gets off before the next load gets on. If that happened, the blimp would be at risk of floating away. Instead, the new passengers board, climbing a portable stepladder, and only then do the old passengers de-blimp.
Forget luggage—the balance of this blimp was much too delicate. The cabin had the feel of a mountain gondola. Or maybe an enclosed bus stop. Or the magical glass elevator in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It resembled the interior of a Honda Civic: two front seats (for pilot and co-pilot) and a bench seat in the back. But it could hold less weight than a budget sedan and the walls were flimsier than that of a car. The weight limit, including the pilot, was 500 pounds. The crew kept 25-pound ballast bags on the ready, in case the weight needs to be evened out, but those probably weren’t needed. Fortunately, I had skipped lunch, so there was room for both my photographer and I. I left my water bottle behind.
Just like in the movies, the pilot (Steve Adams), the photographer (another Steve) and I (not a Steve) donned headphones. Then we went up and away. We were flying at 3,800 feet elevation, but only 1,500 feet above the ground. Any higher and the pressure starts to get wonky for the balloon. Still, it was just the right height to look into backyards, without seeing so much detail as to be embarrassing. The grid of suburbia took on a dollhouse quality, except for the mountains to the west—they were just as big and imposing from the air as they are from the ground.
The view was exhilarating. The windows were expansive. When I asked the pilot if the photographer and I could switch seats, the pilot assented and warned, “Don’t lean on anything you can see through, it’s not made of much.” The only thing to grab was the chair, which I held onto with all my might.
For the most part, the ride was quite smooth, like being hitched to a cloud. A few times, my stomach turned when the blimp swooshed up or down. It felt, in my mind, a little like a roller coaster set free from the track. Granted, I don’t ride roller coasters, so it probably wasn’t as scary as a real one. But unlike the guaranteed safety of a theme park, this ride was full of possibilities. Anything could happen.
We drifted west toward the mountains and then turned around again, returning safely to the airfield.
I was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat when we landed. As promised, the giant V of the human windsock anticipated us, like we were a boat coming in to dock. As we descended, a phone started ringing. I kept wondering was anybody going to answer it, and thinking how rude it was to be taking calls at a time like this. Then I realized that the ringing might have had to do with the mechanics of the landing itself. I decided to let the pilot concentrate on landing rather than inquire about the noise.
We landed softer than a commercial flight, and that was with only one wheel to land on. For such a scaredy cat, I found myself reluctant to leave the cockpit. How could I just return to my normal day after something so extraordinary had happened? Even though I’d conquered my fear, my fight-or-flight response was running at full steam. I found it hard to concentrate the rest of the day. Everything on the ground seemed too silly and mundane in comparison to the riches of the sky.