What’s it like to pilot an airship like the Goodyear blimp or the old Navy blimps? It has to be a lot easier than flying an airplane; right? With an airplane, you have to fiddle with the controls constantly to keep the danged thing in the air. And if the engine fails, you’d better hope you can glide someplace soft. If the blimp engine conks out, however, you can just drift around until it’s fixed. Pretty easy, huh?
As it turns out, this view is mostly bunk. I was talking to an ex Navy blimp pilot. The Navy used to use blimps for long range anti submarine patrols, since they could stay aloft much longer than an airplane. He gave me an idea of just how tricky flying an airship can be.
First of all, the thing is huge and lightweight, so you are always fighting wind, which wants you to go someplace you’d rather not. If the engines fail, you won’t crash, but you will start moving in whatever direction the wind is blowing.
You also have to be constantly monitoring the weight of the thing. As you cruise, you burn off fuel, making the airship progressively lighter, so you’ll keep going up if you’re not careful. If you get caught in the rain or a snowstorm, or freezing wet conditions, the opposite occurs; the snow or water will build up on the surface, so you will get heavier and lose altitude. If that happens, you have to drop some ballast (usually water) to compensate. If the sun comes out, the gas in the blimp will expand, making it rise again. Then, just when you have everything balanced, some sudden cloudiness or a cold front can start the cycle all over again.
So next time you see the Goodyear blimp, don’t assume the piot has his feet up and is relaxing with a mint julep. He’s probably working hard.