Fuji's pilots are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. They steer the blimp much like a conventional airplane, but they also operate levers that funnel outside air into special pockets that help the airship retain its football-like shape as helium pressure fluctuates. The huge nylon-and-plastic envelope has no frame.
During a recent flight, the airship floated over the Ventura Harbor area as children chased its shadow on the ground below. The captain joked with passengers, whose trip had been arranged by Fuji.
At night, the Fuji blimp is moored to a 20-ton mast truck that anchors it to the ground. If a surprise windstorm pulls the blimp from the truck, the mast is equipped with a device that will slice a 40-foot gash in the envelope to deflate the airship before it is blown away.
Blimp chief pilot John McHugh said Camarillo Airport was picked as a Los Angeles-area base for the airship because the skies above Ventura County have little air traffic and the ground at the airport is not crowded.
Although the blimp visited the county briefly in December to provide an aerial television platform for ESPN sports channel cameras covering an Ojai golf tournament, bad weather scrubbed its two main events this month.
Low clouds prevented the blimp from hovering over the Los Angeles Marathon for KCOP-TV, which televised the event March 4. The next day, high winds kept the airship away from the grand opening of a Fuji West Coast headquarters facility in Cypress.
From Camarillo, the blimp heads for its home port of Elizabeth City, N.C. After a two-week stay there, it will start a springtime swing over the Midwest.
Fuji's New York public relations director, Carol Smith, said the blimp's actual departure time from Camarillo is uncertain. "With the blimp, things are always up in the air, no pun intended," she said.
Ground crew chief Johnie Harvey of Elizabeth City said he and other workers will pace the blimp across the country on the ground in trucks. He said he's hoping for happy landings, not the kind of bumpy tie-down that occurred in a little town west of Phoenix the last time the airship traveled through Arizona.
"We all got dragged through the mud," Harvey recalled. "There were 40-knot winds and it was raining. I'll never forget that town."
It was Goodyear, Ariz.