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SKY HiGH For the most part, business editor Don Shilling, left, found his ride on the Spirit of Goodyear a relaxing experience. Blimp offers thrill for eager riders



Published: Sat, August 13, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

WAS CRUISING ALONG AT 1,300 feet above West Mifflin, Pa., with my right arm hanging out the passenger's window. Suddenly, the Goodyear blimp dipped to the right.

My stomach fluttered. I looked down at the Monongahela River and the buildings of downtown Pittsburgh and scootched over in my seat.

The pilot, Mark Kynett, pumped the pedals that control the rudders and the blimp evened out.

"The wind's a little stronger up here today, and it's changing directions a lot," Kynett said matter-of-factly.

Kynett had the quiet confidence of someone who has been flying blimps for 20 years. This was my first time being held in the sky by helium.

Aerial relaxation

Despite the roll to the right and a few sudden dips forward, the blimp provided a smooth and relaxing ride. Mostly, we looked at the barges pushing their loads down the river and the tiny cars filing into downtown on the ribbons of highways.

"One of the best things to being a blimp pilot is that you can relax and enjoy the view," Kynett said.

Sometimes, he turned around and talked with passengers. Once, he wrote an entry in his log book as the blimp meandered along at about 25 mph.

"If you're this big and this slow, everyone can see you," Kynett said. "Plus, you're not going to fall out of the sky. It's very safe -- that's why you don't have seat belts."

The blimp -- the Spirit of Goodyear -- was flying Friday out of the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Pa. The airship will be overhead for the Pittsburgh Steelers game Monday but was in town early to give rides to customers of Hermitage-based Flynn Tire Co. who had won a drawing.

An easy ride

The blimp is lifted by helium, which is lighter than air, and pushed along by two propellor-driven engines at the back. The engines provide a constant buzz, like being in the room with a large fan, but aren't loud enough to drown out conversation.

The vibration is minimal, though Kynett said vibration fatigue can set in on long flights. His longest time in the air was 14 hours.

The blimp measures 192 feet, but the gondola that hangs down has about the same interior room as a minivan. It carries six passengers, plus the pilot, in three rows.

"This is way cool," blurted out one passenger, Rose Wible, 47, of Penn Hills, Pa., just after takeoff.

About 25 years ago, she made a list of things she wanted to accomplish in life. One of them was ride a Goodyear blimp.

"I didn't even know how to do it. I had no clue. I just put in on the list," she said.

She recently checked off another item -- climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Next up? Perhaps spending New Year's Eve in Paris.

Smooth landing

On the blimp, the pilot controls the lateral motion with two foot pedals. A wheel at the pilot's side -- which looks like the wheel of a wheelchair -- moves the blimp up and down.

Kynett was relaxed, occasionally pumping the pedals or turning the wheel, until it was time to land. Then he was all business.

He dipped the nose toward the ground, flipped a couple switches and pulled a cord. The blimp started to drift toward some scrubby trees beyond the airport fence. He began pumping his feet and turning his wheel -- with two hands.

The blimp headed back toward the grass on the side of the runway. Kynett cut off the engine. The 16-person ground crew was just ahead. One carried an orange wind sock on a stick. One communicated to Kynett with hand signals. The others were ready to run.

The blimp drifted off to the left, and the ground crew chased after it. Four men grabbed long ropes hanging from both sides of the nose of the blimp and reigned it in as the landing wheel touched down. One man grabbed a shorter rope that dangled in the center.

"That was smooth," said a passenger, Jim Lightner, 59, of Wheeling, W.Va.

"I didn't feel a touchdown," Wible added.

The pilot turned and smiled. "It's all technique."

shilling@vindy.com




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