On a summer's evening when the wind isn't blowing too hard, Tom Matus likes to hover in the Goodyear Blimp over his Huntington Beach house.
The 49-year-old blimp pilot wafts around the neighborhood and toward the beach, flashing messages like, "Shriners Help Crippled Children . . . Free" He flies there, he says, to check on things at home and, frankly, just to be seen. With all 7,560 light bulbs glowing, it's hard to miss him, which for Goodyear is exactly the point.
But Matus is more than just a public relations man for Goodyear. He's a licensed pilot who has been flying the blimp and anything else he could get his hands on for 20 years now, even a Northrop T-38 trainer jet.
Before he got his job piloting the blimp, he was a flight instructor. And until he sold his Cessna two-seater a few years back, Matus used to fly the 30 miles to work each day. He would take off from Meadowlark Airport, just a few blocks from his house, and land on a grass field near the blimp base in Carson. The trip took seven minutes.
Brotherhood of Pilots
The way Matus sees it, he is really part of an informal brotherhood of pilots. He has been flying since he was 23, most of his friends work in aviation and he still takes his morning coffee with the old-time fliers at the Meadowlark Airport Cafe.
One of them is Joe Hughes, an aerobatic pilot who likes to boast, "I can fly anything that I can get started." Hughes spent about 15 years performing in air shows all over the country and doing stunts for television and movies.
He says he did his greatest stunt for a movie that was never released: two cars drove over ramps and crossed each other 17 feet in the air, while Hughes flew his Super Stearman biplane underneath. "Only great thing I ever did and it's in a can somewhere," he joked recently during breakfast at the Meadowlark Cafe. "I'd never do that again. I must have been out of my mind."
Hughes went up in the blimp with Matus one time. To impress his daredevil friend, Matus attempted a tailspin: a stunt in which a plane climbs high in the air, then stalls and spins like a leaf toward the ground.
Trouble is, you can't really stall a blimp, so in place of a real tailspin, the blimp kind of puttered downward in circles. "But it looked like one (a tailspin) from inside," Hughes said.
Except for takeoff, when it roars skyward at what feels like a 90-degree angle, the blimp cruises as smoothly as an ocean liner. Matus says he ascends quickly so the sight of him doesn't cause accidents on the nearby San Diego Freeway. After all, he said, it's not every day you see the Goodyear Blimp take off.
Matus has taken all kinds of people up in his blimp, including Bob Hope, Johnny Cash and Chuck Yeager, the test pilot about whom the movie "The Right Stuff" was made. One time Matus took up an aviation company employee who promised to take him on a ride he would never forget. Curious about the offer, Matus asked, "Oh, yeah, what do you fly?"
The guy was an ejection seat designer.
Most people just go up in the blimp for the ride, but a few have made some rather strange requests.
"A lot of people want to be married in the blimp," he said. One man, who was doing a commercial about fruit, asked to make the blimp into a pineapple, according to Matus. He wanted to paint the blimp shed to look like a can.
Other people just plain chicken out when they see the passenger car hanging beneath the blimp's enormous sack, which holds 200,000 cubic feet of helium. Stayshich Milan, a Goodyear mechanic who has been working in the blimp crew for 11 years, has seen many nervous riders. When the scared ones approach the blimp's boarding ladder, he said, "They just flatly refuse to get in."
Though the blimp can be frightening at first, it is one of the safest of aircraft, according to Goodyear, which operates two other blimps.
"Goodyear airships, past and present, have operated for more than six decades without a single passenger fatality," proclaims Goodyear's press material.
Matus puts it in a flying man's terms: "It's one of the only aircraft you can have a complete engine failure in and still remain airborne."