The only warning is a slight shudder in the ship as we brush against the tentacles of wind at the edge of the whirlpool.
Then, almost before we can react, the churning waves of air coming off the mountains of Athens grab hold of us, and the airship pitches sharply upward and yaws to the right before turning and diving in the opposite direction toward the sea beneath us. The maneuver feels very much like a wingover-except, of course, that we don't have wings. All we have is 245,000 cubic feet of helium and air, encased in an interwoven polyester bag 200 feet long, 67 feet high, and 63 feet wide. And at the moment, the seven tons of mass that gas represents is all over the sky.
The official designation of this lighter-than-air bucking bronco is a Skyship 600-the largest volume non-rigid airship, or blimp, currently flying in the world. And the reason that it and we are here, getting the living daylights kicked out of us over the Bay of Athens, is because this particular blimp, which is owned by Skycruise Switzerland and normally based in central Switzerland, has been hired to aid security and surveillance efforts during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Which is all very well and good and exciting. But-trust me-it's not nearly as exciting as what it took to actually get this airship from Switzerland to Athens in the first place.
Flying a blimp cross-country is a challenge, no matter where you do it. Airships fly ridiculously slowly, can't out-run any kind of weather, and have to bring their own airport facilities and a ground crew of at least 14 people with them wherever they go. Even flying across a single country, it can feel a bit like being part of a traveling circus, with long days, physically challenging tasks and feats to accomplish, and a different stop every night. But flying a blimp across three European countries, one of the world's most serious mountain ranges and an open sea is a challenge of, well, Olympic proportions.
The invitation to go along on the ferry flight to Athens actually came from Airship Management Services, the U.S. partner company of Skycruise Switzerland. "We're going to be the very first people to cross the Swiss Alps with a blimp," the company president told me proudly. Of course, the thought did cross my mind that if nobody had ever crossed the Alps in a blimp before, there might be a very good reason. And that reason might have something to do with the difficulty or discomfort involved. But I also wasn't about to turn down an adventure like that. Which is how I found myself standing in a damp, grassy field in Lucerne, Switzerland, one rainy day in mid-June, staring up at a huge beast of a machine that came much closer to resembling a great white whale than any legitimate aircraft I'd ever known.
In retrospect, I wasn't far off. Because a blimp is, in fact, an odd mix of sailing ship, aircraft, and large wild creature whose moods run the gamut from docile to dangerous. And flying one is better exercise than a week at the gym.