Learning How to Fly the US Open Blimp

Sporting events and blimps have gone earth and sky together for more than 50 years. At the U.S. Open in Queens, the iconic Goodyear airships immediately float to mind, but since 2007 there’s been a new ship over the National Tennis Center: the Direct TV blimp.

During the U.S. Open, the blimp provides aerial views of the event and the surrounding area for CBS, ESPN and the Tennis Channel.

Alex Carducci, the aircraft’s manager, explained to me what makes it so special.

“It’s the only blimp with a 2,100-square-foot LED television in the world,” Carducci said. “We can run full video on this. We can do color. We can do just about everything on this screen.”

When not hovering over the U.S. Open or another event in the area, the Direct TV airship lays low at the Solberg Airport in Readington, New Jersey.

Named after Thor Solberg — the first pilot to fly from New York to Norway in 1935 — the airport resembles an antique plane lover’s “Field of Dreams.”

Over Labor Day weekend, I had the chance to visit the blimp at its harbor there. But, sadly, when I arrived, I was told we would not be flying to the U.S. Open. The ship was grounded for the day because there was a flight restriction as the president was visiting Paterson, N.J., to see the destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Irene.

We watched as the wind gently blew the aircraft, left and right, off the lush, sweet smelling grass in the middle of the open meadow.

“Airships are kind of romantic,” chief pilot Allan Judd said. “Not too many people know about them. They’re really an extension of the past because airships were the very first mode of transportation that was directional in the air. An airship is really a steerable balloon.”

Judd learned how to fly in Australia. It’s in his blood. His father was a commercial pilot for TWA. But Judd said there aren’t many blimp pilots around these days.

“There are probably 50 licensed in the world that are operating,” he said, “less than the number of astronauts ready to go into space.”

Since we couldn’t take-off that day, Judd offered to give me a flying lesson. Who knows? He might have a new pilot on his hands. Judd and ground crewman John Lanna, a.k.a., “Pressure-Watch Man” helped me into the blimp’s gondola.

In the cockpit, Judd gave me a crash course in handling the ship. The actual driver’s seat feels like a wheelchair. A pair of rudder pedals steer the vessel, while two elevator wheels on each side adjust the blimp up and down.

Various levers control the blade angles of the propellers and gas intake. The blimp gets about two-and-a-half miles of gas per gallon. After pedaling the airship for less than 15 minutes, I began to break a sweat.

“Your feet are constantly peddling all day long — sometimes as long as 14 hours a day” Judd said as I pumped the machine left and right. “If you take your feet off the rudder pedals the ship will start to go in a turn to the left or to the right and it will stay in that turn until you pull it out. So all day long your muscles, from your toes up through your abdomen are constantly in motion.”

Judd said it takes about 1-1/2 hours to get to the National Tennis Center in Queens, but the view is worth it. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, I asked Judd how he would be observing the occasion in the sky.

“We’re looking forward to watching the lights come on, on 911,” he said. “And I’m watching the buildings coming up, and they’re coming up very beautifully and quickly. As we fly by the Hudson River we’re able to see all the work that everybody has put in to resurrect the place. And I think that’s fantastic. This country is about building positive things and energy and that’s what we’re trying to focus on.”

Due to heavy rain and winds most of the week, it took the Direct TV blimp until Friday to finally get airborne, just in time for first lady Michelle Obama’s visit to the U.S. Open.

US Open Blimp

( Nate Chura )

Chief Pilot Allan Judd

( Nate Chura )

Nate Chura in the cockpit of the blimp.

( Nate Chura )