Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A blimp in the sky is worth two in the bush

Now here's something you don't see every day, Saturn's 165-foot, 6,335-pound, candy apple-red A150 blimp:

I saw it today, cruising along I-35 over New Braunfels, promoting the Saturn Ion. The girls had seen it the other day, and were excited by seeing the big thing floating in the sky above us. I can only assume it was in the San Antonio area because of the Final Four--after buzzing over New Braunfels for maybe half an hour, it turned and headed southward back to the Alamo City. A few years back, when Saturn first leased the "Lightship" (so called because of their unique interior illumination) from American Blimp Corporation, it hawked the Saturn Vue, rather than the Ion. Times change. Apparently, there are around 35 of these Lightships plying the skies, leased or owned by everyone from Met Life to Goodyear--yes, that Goodyear. The grandaddy of blimp fleets leases a Lightship for its Brazilian operations. Who knew?

I remember when Goodyear was the only game in town. There was a blimp hangar in Houston until 1992 or so, and around 1977-78 the blimp there (the America) came to my home town of Columbus (Texas, not Ohio) for about a week. I remember rushing outside whenever that distinctive buzzing drone of its engines heralded its arrival. At night, the thing was spectacular--thousands of colored lights covered its flank, and animations and advertising slogans lit up the sky for miles around. Hey, it was small-town Texas. Can I help it if we were easily impressed?

Our house was located on a semi-bluff over the Colorado River. The river channel was broad and deep at that point, lined on our side by tall sycamore, pecan and cottonwood trees as well as grapevines. Lots and lots of mustang grapevines. Think an impenetrable green curtain almost a hundred feet tall shielding part of the river from view. Saturday afternoon I was playing in my backyard when I heard that wonderful drone. I started looking wildly around the sky, but saw nothing. All the while the sound got louder and louder. It sounded like it was coming from... the river? Was it that airboat that sometimes blows by? I started that direction, then stopped abruptly. The red point of an enormous bow poked around the trees, followed by a gleaming silver-grey bulk. I mean, I was at eye level with the crossbar in the letter "G!" The America was cruising along, scant feet above the river itself.

I was beside myself with excitement. Here I was, closer to this famed blimp than all my classmates. Oh, how we lusted after a ride on it! I'll never forget how it abruptly began to rise, as if it was a living thing satisfied with my shock at its dramatic entry and now wanted to end with a flourish. It continued to rise. My God, but that thing was big--nearly 200 feet long, a quick Google search turns up. And as it climbed, it turned towards me! For an instant I panicked, afraid it wouldn't clear the bluff, or the huge live oak tree that grew over my father's work shop there on the edge of our property. But clear them it did--with the exception of the mooring lines dangling from the underside of the ship. Those dragged across the metal roof of the shop and then slid along the ground, toward our house. I'm not making this up, it really was flying that low. Crazy kid that I was, I chased after it, with the notion that I'd grab the line and climb up to the control car, where they'd be impressed with my cleverness and give me a ride around town. Or something like that. Fortunately, I've never been all that fast on my feet, and I didn't reach the lines before they lifted off the ground. They didn't lift high enough, fast enough however, and tangled in our next-door neighbors' TV antenna (cable TV being a newfangled arrival in Columbus at the time), tearing it down. That's one of those weird things that you never forget, and I doubt my family would've believed my story if it hadn't been for that pile of twisted metal that used to be our neighbors' antenna.

That's probably where my love of airships arose. I ended up getting several of Monogram's Goodyear Blimp model kits--the ones where you colored in dots on a paper roller that lights up from inside to simulate the flashing light display on the real thing. One somewhat battered model still survives back in Columbus. Those were lots of fun to make, and one hung from my ceiling light in my room for years as I was growing up. I deeply regret that the great Zeppelin airliners died out with the Hindenburg, because I would dearly love to take a cruise aboard one. I think of the millions the cruise ship industry takes in each year, and am convinced an airship cruise line could clean up, especially with modern technology backing up the liners. Happily, the Zeppelin Company has apparently gotten back into the lighter-than-air business after far too long an absence. They're now manufacturing the Zeppelin NT, which is a semi-rigid hybrid combining some of the best features from small, non-rigid blimps and the enormous, rigid Zeppelins of yore. The English site can be found here and the German site, with lots of neat-o pictures, here.

Amazing what memories and nostalgia a little red Saturn blimp can stir, eh?

Now Playing: Grieg Peer Gynt Suites I & II

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:24 PM

    Your age? Who's antenna? Have a photo of something that was close to patio but you had to have been only 3/4.