Blimp's billboard floats across the sky
By Laura Meade Kirk
Scripps Howard News Service
The Hood blimp ground crew jumps into action securing the blimp as it lands
for a quick change of pilot and passengers.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Hood blimp floats lazily above the Providence
skyline, loosely following the late-day traffic streaming south on
Interstate 95 about 1,000 feet below.
The huge white airship casually veers southwest, hugging the coastline of
Narragansett Bay, as it heads to the Quonset State Airport in North
Kingstown, which will be its home base for the week.
A convoy of Hood Airship Operations trucks and trailers is already at the
airport, waiting for security officers to escort them across runways to an
open field where the blimp is to be stationed.
As the blimp circles overhead, a crew of 10 men, each clad in khaki pants
and dark blue shirts, races onto the field and lines up in V formation into
the prevailing wind – like a flock of birds – ready to catch the blimp as it
Four men – two on each side – grab each of two long ropes dangling from each
side of the blimp as it touches down onto the field. Another grabs the lead
rope on the nose of the oversize helium balloon and pulls it to the ground.
The two-person crew jumps out of the tiny cockpit and a new pilot, Mats
Backlin, scrambles in. He dons a set of headphones and, after a quick check
of his instrument panel, asks the control tower for permission to take off
On Backlin's go, the ground crew lets go of the tethers and the blimp gently
eases back up into the sky, a gigantic balloon powered on either side by
propellers driven by two 2-liter engines – about the size of the engines in
the original Volkswagen Beetles.
Backlin is destined for McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, where his job is to fly
the blimp around the stadium for 90 minutes or so while the crowd assembles
for the game.
It's a gorgeous summer evening – about 80 degrees, with virtually no wind
and a visibility of more than 50 miles, clear to Boston and beyond.
Flying a blimp is a lot like skippering a boat, Backlin explains. And with
weather like this, he says, he can't imagine a better way to make a living
than sailing the skies.
The Hood blimp is a fixture over New England in summer and fall. It's
primarily a floating billboard – a form of advertising designed to spread
the company's name, explained Mickey Wittman, a spokesman for the Lightship
Group in Orlando, Fla., which owns and operates the Hood blimp and nearly 20
Blimps are a novelty, so they attract attention wherever they go, Wittman
said. They're also incredibly quiet – at least at ground level – so they're
not distracting, he said. And, they're economical and environmentally
friendly, flying for hours on a single tank of gas.
The blimp flies five days a week over beaches, boating areas, ballgames and
other outdoor events – as well as along highways and byways as it travels to
Most fans don't look beyond the blimp itself – a cigar shaped balloon that's
128 feet long and 44-feet tall, filled with 68,000 cubic feet of helium
(which is worth about $20,000, Macklin said).
It totally dwarfs the command station – known as a cockpit or the gondola –
that's strapped to the underbelly of the blimp by a network of 24 wire
cables. At nearly 9 feet long, 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall, the cockpit is
about as big as a full-size car and similarly laid out, with two bucket
seats in the front and a bench that seats two or three in the back.
The pilot sits to the left, in a chair equipped with foot pedals that
control the rudders that move the blimp from side to side. Large wheels on
either side of the pilot's seat, much like those on a wheelchair, control
the rudders that keep it level in the sky. This is Mats Backlin's office 30
or so hours each week, several months each year.
Backlin, 53, is among about 150 licensed LTA – lighter than air – aircraft
pilots worldwide. About 40 of them work for the Lightship Group.
Backlin, who's been around gliders and other aircraft since he was a boy,
went to college to study aeronautical engineering. He took a summer job at a
firm that designed and built hot air balloons and never left. Along the way,
he test-piloted some airships and was eventually persuaded to become an
He's been piloting airships as a career for about 15 years, in North
America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
He's also amassed a slew of memories, from flying over the 1992 Barcelona
Olympics to regular trips over the New York City Marathon. Once he saw a
line of about 50 beachgoers on Long Island queue up to simultaneously moon
the blimp as it flew overhead.