October 1, 2005
By Phil Scott
Kate Board never really wanted to be a blimp pilot — at least not at first. "I didn't even know what a blimp was," she admits. But Board did want to be a pilot. To get her started, her father gave her five hours of flight instruction for her nineteenth birthday. After the five hours were up, and because flying lessons in her native England are so expensive, Board worked for the local flying club and was paid in flying time.
After working nonflying jobs in London, she took a position with Virgin Balloon Flights. When Virgin relocated, the company offered Board an interview with another Virgin subsidiary. "They knew I was into flying, so they asked what I thought of flying blimps," she recalls. "I thought about it for three seconds and I said 'that sounds good.'" The next stop was blimp school in Kissimmee, Florida, and a checkride in Boston.
Flying a blimp is more like piloting a ship than flying an airplane. "It moves like a boat," she says, "and it requires the crew of a boat. When you get at low altitude in aircraft it's bumpy, but a blimp rides on the air like a boat on the water."
Most blimps have a huge steering wheel. The American Blimp Corporation (ABC) A60+ that Board flies actually has two, one on both sides of the pilot seat. "It does, in fact, look like a wheelchair," she says. One wheel controls yaw, the other pitch. But if the ship's in a thermal, that's all academic because the blimp is going up, no matter which way the nose is pointed.
Blimps move slowly. The manual puts the ABC A60+'s top speed at 48 knots, but Board says that must be with a tailwind going downhill. Blimps normally cruise at around 30 knots.
During a recent trip up the Rhone Valley in the south of France, Board encountered 50-knot winds. "I got into the valley and started going backwards," she says. At lower altitudes it was so turbulent that the blimp rolled over on its side, so she tried climbing. Above 4,500 feet — high for a blimp — she got above the wind, flew past her destination, and turned and descended downwind into the airport.
Lightship Group, Board's employer, rents its blimps. Some clients want her to fly over football or baseball games while others want to give VIP rides.
Board has logged almost 3,000 hours — but only 250 of it in airplanes — and she also has pretty good job security. There are just about 100 active airship pilots in the United States.
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