Skyship 600: To the Olympics by Blimp

Would Lane get to Greece for the Games in an airship, or would she and the rest of the crew land in jail?

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FL1204_blimp_main

Skyship 600 blimp

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.

A blimp's capacity to dish out upper-body workouts stems from two particular aspects of its design. First, full-size blimps are huge. Getting all that volume and mass to move in any direction, let alone change direction, is a Herculean feat-unless you happen to be a thermal or wind gust, of course. Mere humans attempting to fly a Skyship 600 have to coax it around the sky by moving four barn-door-size control surfaces at the tail. And since those surfaces are linked directly by cable to the yokes in the cockpit, without any boost or trim, moving them requires the energetic use of every single muscle in a pilot's arms and upper torso. Especially in wind or turbulence. The only way to mildly reduce the amount of control force required is to trim the entire airship-a complicated maneuver that involves pumping air ballast in or out of two variable-size bags, or "ballonets" located fore and aft in the helium compartment.

There are actually times, in smooth and calm air, when an airship requires almost no control inputs at all. But flying a blimp in any kind of thermal or wind activity is like trying to command a large, obstinate and powerful animal. Sometimes it feels like a trail horse that keeps straying off course, requiring repeated tugs on the reins to pull it back onto the trail. Other times, it feels more like a horse not quite broken that needs constant, energetic and assertive inputs to keep it under control. And in some truly frightening moments, it can turn on you like an angry, wild creature that is flat-out determined to trample you under its feet or buck you off its back entirely.

Controlling an airship through all of those moods requires developing a good sense of anticipation, because if you feel the ship starting to move, you have a window of about 1.2 seconds to get on the controls-with gusto-to counter the shift. If you miss that window and the ship's seven tons of mass gets away from you, it can be the start of a wild ride, requiring a series of full-deflection control inputs-which means turning the yoke at least 20-30 degrees past a normal aircraft's aileron stop in both directions-to finally get it back where it started.

The force that requires, and the resistance of the ship's mass to control inputs, are both so high that a blimp is also literally impossible to overcontrol. Watching the pilots shove the yoke all the way forward and hold it there with a knee ramming it into the instrument panel was a little disconcerting-until I found myself doing the same thing to generate enough downforce to get the ship to break out of a strong thermal.

And if all that activity is attention-getting in the air, it's 10 times more adrenaline-producing close to the ground. Depending on conditions, landing and taking off in a blimp can itself be something of an Olympic sport. An Olympic team sport.

Launching and recovering an airship requires a surprising amount of effort from a whole lot of people. Eight ground crew members are needed to hold the two long nose ropes used for controlling the blimp on the ground, while four more hold handles on the sides of the gondola. A 13th person is positioned at the top of the docking mast to guide the nose of the ship on or off its mooring cup. And all of that action is coordinated by a crew chief who is part landing signal officer, part controller, and part third-base coach, communicating with the crew through a series of rapid hand and body signals all throughout the takeoff and landing process.

Getting the blimp off the mast, properly balanced, and up into the air can be a fairly straightforward procedure ... in calm conditions. But in gusty winds, the crew's task becomes one akin to holding a seven-ton bull by the horns, and the hazards posed by an uncontrollable airship on the ground are significant enough that blimps actually have an emergency take-off procedure.

Landing a blimp can be an even tougher challenge. An airship may have a top speed of only 50 knots, but bringing one back to earth requires an amazing amount of fast action on the part of both pilot and ground crew. As the blimp approaches, the crew lines up in the shape of a "V" that points into the wind, like a human flight director. As the blimp approaches, the crew chief brings the lines of the V in tighter until, at a critical moment, he releases the crew and they take off at a dead run to grab hold of the ropes and gondola and throw enough extra ballast on board to make sure the blimp stays down. The pilot and crew then have to maneuver the ship's mooring probe carefully onto the mast, with a docking target less than 10 inches in diameter.

Again, it can be a fairly straightforward drill in calm conditions. The ducted propellers on a Skyship 600 have reverse capability as well as the ability to rotate 85 degrees up and 110 degrees down to help a pilot hover, descend or climb, which is why they're known as "vectors" instead of propellers. But in gusty winds, a blimp can still drag crewmembers long distances, swing into them with enough force to inflict serious injury, and go from three feet above the ground to 200 feet above the ground in a matter of seconds.

And yet, the inherent challenge of flying an airship was only one of the difficulties involved in getting the Skycruise blimp from Switzerland to Athens-or, for that matter, even getting the trip underway. Our departure was delayed a full two weeks due to paperwork problems and weather. Then the drive shaft between one of the blimp's two Porsche 930 230-hp engines and its outboard vector sheared, breaking the outrigger mount in three places, turning tubing into pretzels and sending pieces flying through the cowling, top and bottom.

The good news was that none of the pieces tore open the helium bag. But the damage was still massive. And with only five Skyship 600s in existence in the world, spare parts were going to be a bit hard to come by ... especially on short notice, in the middle of Switzerland. So a group of us headed north to Berlin, Germany, to get the company's second Skyship-which was scheduled to fly to Athens a month later to act as the NBC camera ship-so we could take that one ahead while the rest of the crew scrambled to find a way to fix the first blimp.

Fortunately, the airship broke at the same airport where Pilatus Aircraft is based. So in the five days it took us to make the 1,200 mile round trip to Berlin and back, a team of Pilatus engineers, welders and machinists, working with the Skycruise mechanics, actually managed to repair the first blimp's damage-a feat that's particularly impressive because a blimp can only be held steady in a hangar. All field repairs, including welding and painting, have to be done on a moving target, swinging in the wind.

But the result of all that effort was that we were able to push off the mast at 6:05 a.m. on July 4 and finally head for Greece ... a mere three weeks late ... in the airship we'd planned on taking all along.

The Gotthard Pass is one of the lower pathways through the Alps, but it's still less than a mile wide in places, which is why we needed not only clear ceilings, but virtually no wind to get through it safely. Blimps and jagged peaks don't tend to get along particularly well in close quarters. The other reason no blimp had attempted the crossing before is that it requires an altitude of at least 7,300 feet, which presents a challenge because helium expands with altitude. By the time we reached about 4,500 feet, the expanding helium would have pushed all the air ballast out of the blimp envelope. To climb further, we'd have to vent helium. Which is all well and good until you have to descend on the far side of the pass. Descending would cause the helium to contract, leaving us with far less lift than we'd had at take off.

It was a tricky calculation, requiring us to take off with sharply reduced fuel and payload and keep our fingers crossed that the winds would actually be as forecast as we wove our way around the glacier-topped peaks of the Alps. But although we had to vent 1,800 cubic feet of helium to clear the pass, there was virtually no turbulence and, four hours later, we landed safely in Locarno, Switzerland, right on the Italian border.

With the Alps behind us, we figured the rest of the journey would be relatively simple. As it turned out, however, the challenges were just beginning.

Locarno, in fact, was a good indication of what was to come. We got there on a Sunday, although we had to send the mast truck ahead two days earlier, because trucks can't drive on European roads on Sundays. Which also meant we couldn't get replacement helium for the airship until Monday. When the helium guy did show up, it took him more than three hours to refill the blimp. Then a radio wire short-circuited, jamming all the transmissions in the area. By the time we got that fixed, it was 1:30 in the afternoon, and thunderstorms were moving in from the east. And since a blimp can't outrun much in the way of weather, we had to cancel for the day. Which would not have been so bad except that the only place in Locarno with 20 rooms available on short notice was the local whorehouse. (80 francs for the room, 43 francs extra for the . . . uh, room service.)

And so it went. We'd get to the airport at 7 or 8 a.m., but then we would not be able to get a clearance to takeoff. Or permission to land at our next stop. Or we'd have to delay takeoff after finally getting a clearance because some airports in Italy close for lunch-for up to three hours. Then something mechanical would need to be fixed. Then weather would move in and we'd have to cancel for the day. Or, we'd finally take off and head for the next stop, only to get there and have to circle in bumpy, exhausting thermals for two or three hours because the ground crew had gotten bum directions and were only just clearing the border. Or had suffered one or more flat tires. Or simply got stuck in traffic. Or weren't being allowed on the airport, despite having clearances arranged ahead of time.

On one occasion, all those delays meant that we ended up having to return to our departure point, because the airport personnel at our destination informed us they were going home at 7:15 p.m., and the little Garmin Pilot III GPS we were using for navigation estimated our arrival time only 25 minutes before that. It was simply too close a margin to chance, given the uncertainty of winds and the fact that we couldn't get permission to land at any other airport in all of southern Italy. On another, it meant we were pushing dark when we approached our destination, which was a problem because night VFR flying in controlled airspace isn't allowed in Europe. We called the airport "in sight" more than 15 miles away so we could close our flight plan in legal daylight, but we then had to find the crew's "V" formation in pretty darn dark conditions.

But all of that-including the whorehouse-pales in comparison to the truly unforgettable adventures we had in the hot, lawless hell of Foggia, Italy. The whole story is far too long to relate here. But it involved circling over a deserted, overgrown and supposedly civilian airport for two hours in 106 º temperatures and thermals and 25-knot gusty winds while our crew was detained at gunpoint by armed soldiers. Then, after a difficult landing that dragged the crew through a very rough, bramble-filled field, the guys with guns took our passports and detained the five of us in the blimp, as well, declaring that we were in the country illegally.

And then, while we waited on board to see if we were going to be arrested, we got hit with the dust devil.

Any high wind condition is extremely hazardous in a blimp-especially when it's moored on the mast. And a twisting wind can get a blimp moving from zero to 35 mph across the ground in less than three seconds, then spike the ship straight up on its nose before throwing it out the other side of the thermal. At that point, the blimp can crash back down to the ground-potentially hard enough to break the propellers and other components, not to mention inflict serious injury on any poor soul still on board.

So there we were. One second, I was sitting on a relatively sleepy airship, swinging languidly in the hot afternoon breeze. The next, I was in the belly of an angry, wild animal that was rumbling like a freight train as it picked up speed across the ground like a whale getting ready to breach, and the chief engineer was yelling at us to get off the ship ... NOW!

Unfortunately, the wind was pushing the blimp in the same direction that we had to exit. So we had to hit the ground running, as it were, and it was about four feet to the ground, which was moving disconcertingly fast by the time I jumped.

I didn't make it.

My right foot hit an uneven patch of thorny ground, and I fell hard. With no other choice, I rolled flat and covered my head with my arms as I felt the gondola pass by close overhead. From a distance, I heard the crew's cries of "One Down! One Down!" as the guys came running.

Fortunately, one of the people on board was the chief pilot, who got to the cockpit, got the control lock off, and managed to fly the ship out of the thermal, keeping it from going up on its nose or crashing back to earth. It was all over in less than 15 seconds. But by the time I shakily got to my feet again, I had a whole new level of respect for these deceptively innocuous-looking aircraft.

In the end, we weren't arrested, although we were detained until 8:30 that night, our generator was stolen, and our passports were only returned after three more hours of negotiation the next morning. We then flew down to the southern tip of Italy, where we waited while four crewmembers took one of our masts on to Greece, since we had to have a mast waiting for us there before we could leave the one we were moored to in Italy.

There was one other panic moment when, as we crossed the Italian coastline, we were informed that our clearance into Greece had expired due to our many delays, and that if we attempted to enter Greek airspace, or land at our destination without not only an ATC clearance, but a diplomatic clearance, we would be arrested.

"What the hell is a diplomatic clearance?" I asked the chief pilot.

"I don't know," he answered, "but we have to go find one."

"What are we going to do in the meantime?" I pressed.

The pilot grinned. "Keep going," he said. "At 30 miles an hour, you have some time to sort things like this out."

Ah, the beauty of blimps. Nine hours and one fully certified diplomatic clearance later, we crossed the Corinth Canal and entered the Athens Bay, only to hit the worst turbulence of the entire trip. I began to feel an odd sense of kinship with Ulysses himself, battling the gods through seemingly never-ending challenges before they allowed him the prize of a safe landing on Greek soil. We endured the pitching and rolling waves of air for three full hours before the crew arrived at the field, just as darkness fell, and we struggled back to earth again-grubby, exhausted, but still proud of our accomplishment.

The journey had taken us nine days and 44 flight hours, not counting the side-trip to Berlin. The car trip back to Switzerland took only 35 hours, total. But I wouldn't have traded it for the world.

For one thing, there is nothing-and I mean nothing-quite like seeing the world from an airship. We cruised through the Swiss Alps, the hills and medieval fortresses of northern Italy, the Adriatic coast, and the blue-green coastal waters of Corfu and Greece, a mere 500 - 1,000 feet above the ground, drifting slow enough to wonder why that guy didn't put skylights on his converted WWII pillbox-house, and low enough to read a cathedral banner proclaiming its 500th anniversary. There were, of course, more than a few moments of excitement. But there were also moments of exquisite serenity, my head and arms resting on the edge of the Skyship's huge, open picture windows, a gentle summer breeze pulling at my hair, as I watched the sun sink into the Adriatic Sea.

And while there was more than a little discomfort along the way, it was discomfort shared-among 19 remarkable human beings, all working together to get us safely home each night and one step further in our journey, no matter what challenges, sweat, cursing, laughter, frustration or exhaustion that entailed. Imagine, for a moment, how it feels to have a friend waiting for you at the end of a tough flight. Now multiply that by 14, and you'll have an idea how it felt to see the crew lining up to bring us home at the end of every day-sprinting to catch the ropes, throwing themselves through the gondola doorway for extra ballast, running to aid a crewmember in trouble, and allowing themselves to be dragged through brambles and thorns rather than to let the ship get away or into danger. A few mountains, miles, winds, whorehouses, dust devils and even armed commandos all become manageable if you have that kind of company to face them with.

I went to Europe thinking that I was going to have the fun of flying a blimp for a while. I left knowing that I'd had the privilege of being part of a blimp crew for a while. A crew that, if they ever make airship cross-country an Olympic sport, would be a formidable favorite for the gold.