When New Orleans hosted the 2012 Allstate BCS National Championship Game, the DIRECTV blimp sailed above our city for several days’ time, floating above the French Quarter, CBD, and Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a lazy circular orbit. Its digital display was visually engaging, mesmerizing and colorful, drawing eyes and attention easily.
I soon learned of the @dtvblimp Twitter account and was delighted by the photos tweeted by its crew, especially those that presented a view of the city not often witnessed by those of us who spend most of our time traveling our city’s streets and sidewalks. I followed the account and found myself looking forward to pictures posted in other cities from other events. Upon discovering that the blimp was again en route to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, I requested the opportunity to interview the crew about the adventure of taking the blimp from city to city and to learn more about its operation.
Launched in October 2007 at the Major League Baseball World Series in Boston, the blimp is operated by the Van Wagner Airship Group and contracted to DIRECTV as a client. It measures 178′ in length and its material components weigh 10,000 pounds.
The blimp itself is constructed of layers of high-density ripstop nylon enhanced with Teflon® and Kevlar® coatings, and is entirely flexible, without structural framework components. (Unlike the Hindenburg airship or zeppelins, there is no rigid or semi-rigid frame.) A helium-filled lighter-than-air craft, it is both powered and steerable (unlike a free-floating balloon). Its external components include twin propeller engines, rudders, cables, and the undercarriage gondola. Its fuel capacity is 220 gallons and and its burn rate averages 10 gallons of gasoline per hour of flight time.
The lightsign digital display measures 70′ by 30′, 35 panels wide and 15 panels deep, and weighs 900 pounds. Featuring 33,600 pixels and 235,200 LEDs, the lightsign can be viewed with clarity from the ground day or night. (Due to this additional weight on the blimp’s port side, the airship almost always lists slightly.)
The lightsign is what makes the DIRECTV blimp one-of-a-kind and what makes this airship the most popular blimp in the country. The panels are similar to those used for digital billboards and on the sides of buildings. However, unlike structural light displays, the blimp’s surface is flexible — much like skin. It is capable of displaying live video, concerts, and scoreboard statistics, but has also played a part in marriage proposals and birthday announcements.
The DIRECTV lightship is usually featured at a minimum of two events each week and is constantly in motion; when traveling between the East and West coasts, it typically follows the Interstate 10 corridor. While it typically flies at an altitude of 1,500 feet, its maximum altitude is approximately 10,000 feet. Although the Van Wagner Airship Group is based in Orlando, FL, the blimp and its crew function as an entirely mobile unit — everything required for its operation and maintenance travels from one location to next for each flight event. As the blimp travels at a speed averaging 35 miles per hour, typically making 200-mile hops each day between destinations, the majority of its crew travel in trucks and trailers below.
The full crew includes a chief pilot, a line pilot, a crew chief, an assistant crew chief, two mechanics, a lightsign operator, a camera operator, a clerk and 10 crew/ground support personnel. While the blimp was tethered to its mast, I noticed that its crew members were relaxed and personable; it was immediately clear that this team works well together. Many of the crew members describe themselves as gypsies and were genuinely enthusiastic about the perpetual travel. While the newest member of the team has been on board for one year’s time, some members of the Van Wagner Airship group have been with the company for 20 years.
The in-flight crew typically consists of one or two pilots (depending on the duration of flight time), and a camera operator and/or a lightsign programming operator (depending on the purpose of the flight). Seating is limited in the approximately 12′ x 5′ gondola; while there is some space for equipment as needed, it’s compact, utilitarian, and sparse by design.
The blimp remains grounded if there are poor weather conditions — stormy weather, electrical activity, or winds greater than 18 miles per hour. Due to its traveling speed limitations, high winds significantly limit its ability to travel.
Unlike other forms of travel, a blimp isn’t simply flown — it is constantly wrangled, both by the ground crew and its pilot. Even when tethered to its mast, It’s almost never fully grounded and seems to be always slightly in motion. During flight, it seemed that Chief Pilot Jeff Capek was constantly moving, piloting the craft and adjusting its rudders in response to wind conditions. Unlike the rudders for other kinds of aircraft, manipulating the blimp’s rudders can require 50 pounds of force… imagine driving a car while being actively engaged in an active stair-stepper workout!
Unlike traveling by car, boat, or helicopter, even for passengers the ride is a uniquely physical experience. The blimp’s taking off and ascent are very different; it feels more like being released than being launched, and the acceleration is much more subtle. One doesn’t really ride in a blimp — one rides on it, strapped by cables to a lumbering and sometimes restless craft that’s continuously responding to the wind’s changing currents.
During take-off, the previously relaxed ground crew shifts gears dramatically, become active and wholly-focused, their actions appearing almost choreographed. Upon landing, the physical challenge of anchoring the blimp to its mast was also evident — the crew was literally pulling the blimp down, holding it in position — and their engagement was equally precise.
When the craft was aloft and cruising, I found that my body was actively compensating for the slight bobbling sensation resulting from the craft’s interaction with the surrounding atmosphere. Although I would guess that those who fly the blimp regularly become accustomed to these sensations, I enjoyed how it felt — it engaged my senses more fully and actively. I can’t imagine not considering each flight to be its own adventure.
I asked Chief Pilot Capek about any particularly adventurous flights and he chuckled, replying that the adventures usually happened while the crew was on the ground in the different cities they visit. He noted that flights are usually routine, and that he frequently listens to talk radio or sometimes music while flying, as many of us do while working at desks in offices.
As I remembered watching the blimp in flight last year, I’d jokingly asked if those aboard were ever tempted to stray from the route and go on a renegade joyride? One crew member replied that it’s always interesting to see the crowds of people attending an event, the stadiums filled to capacity, and the tailgating parties forming a living kaleidoscope below. In urban environments, with the ebb and flow of the city below and the changing sky, it’s never the same flight twice — even when the blimp is traveling in a repetitive route.
Unless the DIRECTV lightship is flying above an urban environment, Chief Pilot Capek noted that most of the terrain is typically fields or forests with few distinguishing features. He described his favorite time aloft as being when he’s on an “exposure flight” (brief flights with the lightsign display active) over the waters of South Florida’s coast, enjoying calm conditions; it was my impression that these excursions qualify as his personal version of a “joyride.”
Returning to the city from the airport, I again watched as the blimp sailed above me on its return trip to the city to shoot scenic footage for various Super Bowl related broadcasts. Driving brought me back to ground immediately… I was more acutely aware of each stop sign and traffic light. And I smiled, amused that the blimp had arrived before me.
Watch for the scenic footage shot last Friday by the DIRECTV blimp on ESPN’s Dan Patrick show 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM. The blimp will also provide live coverage of the Dan Patrick show and the Artie Lang show on DIRECTV’s Audience network (Channel 239) throughout the week.
Everyone’s also invited to attend the 7th Annual DIRECTV Celebrity Beach Bowl at Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place on Saturday, February 2, 2013 beginning at 9:00 AM! This event is open to the public and it’s free! However, space is limited — so please arrive early to join the fun!
(My sincere thanks to Gus Fernandez, Chief Pilot Jeff Capek, and the exceptional crew of the DIRECTV blimp for their time and this amazing experience!)