Being a commercial blimp pilot is thrilling work, and probably allows Dillard to see more of the world in a single year than most can hope to see in a lifetime.
There’s an unmistakable sense of satisfaction in Terry Dillard’s voice when he talks about his profession — one performed by only a select few individuals on the planet.
It’s thrilling work and probably allows Dillard to see more of the world in a single year than most can hope to see in a lifetime, and from very unique perspectives. But the first thing Dillard would tell anyone else who aspired to someday become a blimp pilot is to do something else.
“If you’ve got single-engine, multi-engine [FAA pilot certification] with instrument rating I can talk to you, but I’m only going to talk to you to try to talk you out of a job,” says Dillard (at right, flying the blimp).
The life he leads as chief pilot aboard the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey blimp is a nomadic one, but it’s one that suits the Orlando, Florida native just fine. For others it may be a completely different story, as blimp pilots — of which there are maybe 55 or 60 in the entire world, and about 25 blimps (or airships) in the world — are expected to essentially live out of suitcases and hotel rooms throughout their entire careers, spending a few months in one city for a client (June through mid-September in southern New Jersey for Horizon BCBS, which is one of several clients for blimp ownership The Lightship Group), before moving on to another.
The same holds true for an entire blimp crew. Dillard is one of two pilots who alternate flying the blimp daily (weather permitting; Australian-born John McGuirk being the other pilot on this assignment), and the blimp itself is under constant, 24-hour watch wherever it is moored, which in the case of its 15th Horizon BCBS of New Jersey summer visit is the Woodbine Airport.
Left: the Orion Music + More main stage prior to the festival's start. Right: The Cove in Brigantine from about 600 feet up.
Blimps are typically employed to promote companies or products, and to provide aerial coverage of big-time entertainment and sporting events. Atlantic City Weekly was given a ride on the blimp prior to the Metallica Orion Music + More Festival (June 23-24) at Bader Field (where the HBCBC blimp once flew out of when it was an active airport). And while the blimp is never made available for private rentals, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield often donates or auctions off private rides as fundraising functions, having donated more than $45,000 to New Jersey charities in 2011 alone. AC Weekly spoke with Dillard after the landing, which is achieved with a series of hand signals between the pilot and the ground crew as it draws near to the ground. The crew serves as the airship’s “brakes” as the pilot steers it into the wind and down to the landing area.
How did you wind up becoming a commercial blimp pilot?
I started flying balloons for tourists at Disney World and Sea World in Orlando, and in 1991 I switched gears to come fly airships. So I’ve been flying these for 21 years. I just liked the idea of having motors on something and being able to go where I want to when I want to. The problem in the balloon world is that you didn’t have a choice of where you went [as balloons only travel in the direction of the wind, with chase crews following them and returning the balloon and its passengers to the launch location after the pilot puts them down]. Here I can fly anywhere I want as long as I’ve got my crew of people on the ground.
Right: The new Ocean City-Somers Point bridge as taken from the Horizon BCBS of New Jersey blimp.
The most dangerous thing you can do with an airship is what we just did — land with the crew and maneuver it to the mooring. If you’re going to break an airship, this is where you’re going to do it, on the ground in the hands of the crew. That’s why learning the hand signals and learning to do what these guys do on the ground is so important, and I have complete faith in them.
What does the entire crew of an airship entail?
Our total team consists of 15 people — two pilots, two mechanics and 11 crew members. We’re road warriors. We’re on the road seven days, 365 days a year with our days off being Tuesday and Wednesday. We’re always over the beach during the weekends because that’s when the client [Horizon] wants us there since that’s when everybody’s on the beach. And when we’re doing NASCAR events, big golf tournaments or football games, we’re always working the weekends because that’s when the big events happen.
We have a crewman on watch 24 hours a day, done in two 12-hours shifts —8am-8pm and 8pm-8am. Everybody pulls a 12-hour shift. And when we leave this airport, the only thing you’re going to see is the swing circle. When the airship is moored and on the ground, it rotates and spins 360 degrees, which will make a big pie shape. We’re like a 132 foot-long windsock floating in mid air, and the banner pilots [of those small propeller planes that fly over the beaches toting advertising banners] love us because they can see us on the ground from five miles out telling them which direction the wind’s blowing.
When we finish with this client we change the decals and put on someone else’s logo. We don’t deflate it. An airship’s shell will lose a significant amount of its strength if you deflate it. Plus, helium’s very expensive. And when we leave this airport it’ll be even cleaner than when we got here because we always pick up trash and debris before we leave.
Click here to see a photo gallery taken from the Horizon BCBS of New Jersey blimp.
What makes someone want to become a blimp pilot?
Well you might wake up one morning and say ‘My girlfriend left me, she took the two dogs, I have no ties to speak of and I just need a new life. I want to become a road warrior.’ If you’ve got single-engine, multi-engine, instrument rating, now I can talk to you, but I’m only going to talk to you to try to talk you out of a job. It’s a lifestyle. Can you live out of two suitcases and a hotel room seven days, 365?
What happens when you get homesick and want to go home and have Thanksgiving dinner with grandma? Nope, it don’t happen that way. And if I try to keep talking you out of it and you won’t go away? You’ll probably be a good blimp pilot candidate.
Some people are homebodies who have to have their Friday nights with the bowling buddies or time with the wife or girlfriend and the dogs by the fireplace in the wintertime. Homebodies don’t work in this job. It’s like joining the circus. You change cities every seven days.
Is there anything else you’d rather do, or would want to do if you couldn’t do this anymore?
Well, I’ve worked outside all my life. Even in the hot-air ballooning business, when we weren’t flying we were getting the equipment ready for the next day’s flight — putting the champagne on ice, putting propane in the tanks. If they told me tomorrow morning, ‘Terry, you’ve got to come into the office and work here now,' I could not go. I could not sit in an office and watch that clock go tick, tick, tick until it was time to leave at 4 or 5 o’clock.