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CLOSE-UP : Blimped Out

January 09, 1994|Gordon Dillow

Most professional pilots live for speed. But pilot Nick Nicolary lives for slow. In fact, he's one of the slowest pilots in the skies.

Nicolary flies a 192-foot-long, 202,000-cubic-foot bag of gas that has a top speed of only 54 m.p.h.--the Goodyear blimp Eagle.

"I love flying the blimp," says Nicolary, 52, who has been a blimp pilot for 26 years and has 10,000 hours of flying them under his belt. "Mostly because of the people you get to meet. Everybody gets a kick out of riding in the blimp."

Even Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, who rode the blimp one day in the early 1980s. "That was one of the best rides I ever had," Nicolary says. "Only problem was, I wanted to talk about breaking the sound barrier and he wanted to talk about the blimp. Of course, I let him fly it. He had a natural feel for it."

Though their highest-profile job is providing bird's-eye views of athletic and other events--in return for which the networks broadcast shots of the blimp at least once each hour--the airships are also used as flying electronic billboards. Rides on the six-passenger blimp, one of three Goodyear craft across the country, are not available to the public.

Goodyear has never had a passenger fatality since its first blimp went up more than 60 years ago, but there have been a few close calls. In 1990, a radio-controlled model airplane collided with the Eagle while it was flying over the South Bay, tearing a foot-square gash in its rubber-lined polyester skin. Nicolary landed it safely.

"It's a great job," says Nicolary, who is one of five Eagle pilots. "Who wouldn't enjoy a job like this? After all, everyone loves a blimp."

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