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A nice way to travel, but BYOB

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2001


TAMPA -- Airship operation isn't rocket science.

"You won't break the sound barrier in this gas bag," Carl Harbuck explained. "It moves along at a steady 40 mph, but it can be sensitive to a stiff breeze. You don't get airsick, do you?"

The steady 12-knot wind howling across the treetops at Vandenburg Airport had the pilot of the Budweiser.com blimp a little concerned.

"It can get a little squirrely," he confessed. "But that's only taking off and landing."

Still, Harbuck took great care to explain the safety procedures for the 165-foot dirigible, here to film Super Bowl XXXV for CBS.

"Wear your seatbelts. If you get up, use the handrails. And don't lean on the windows," he said.

"What about water balloons?" I asked.

"No water balloons," he answered. "Unless you want to throw one at your photographer."

Airships aren't built for speed, or comfort, for that matter. There are no movies or music. No flight attendants. No little bags of peanuts. But most important, no beverages.

"Come on ... this is the Budweiser blimp," I protested. "What do you mean you've got nothing to drink?"

Apparently the same FAA rules that prohibit low altitude water balloon bombing prevented Harbuck from serving refreshments in flight. So you soak up the sights, share airship trivia and, if you are lucky, play chicken with other blimps.

"There are the Monster.com guys," Harbuck said, pointing to another airship a half-mile or so away. "We both work for the same company. But as you can see, Bud One in the best-looking blimp in the fleet."

With 150,000 cubic feet of helium and twin Lycoming 10 360-PIG6 engines, Bud One can cruise at 47 mph but hit a top speed of 70 mph when the wind is at its back.

"Helium is an inert gas. ... You can hold a blow torch to it, and it still wouldn't ignite," Harbuck said. "They have come a long way since the old days."

In the early days of airships, hydrogen was the gas of choice. It had good lift, but it was highly flammable.

"During World War I, the Germans used zeppelins to bomb London," he said. "In retrospect, piling a bunch of explosives in an airship filled with flammable hydrogen gas doesn't seem like such a bright idea."

After the war, dirigibles became the stylish way to cross the Atlantic. But that all came to a halt May 6, 1937, when the rigid airship Hindenburg burst into flames in front of the national media at Lakehurst, N.J.

So blimps took a back seat to jets, helicopters and rocket ships. But you can't put any of those vehicles in neutral and hang out over the Hillsborough River to watch the University of Tampa crew train on a Monday afternoon.

"Try this in a Cessna," Harbuck quipped. "It just doesn't cut it."

And there is no better way to get a true appreciation of what Tampa has to offer than to see it from a slow-moving blimp.

There's the Ice Palace, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. And Interstate 4, with its miles of snarled traffic and endless construction.

Move across town to the crowded parking lots of Raymond James Stadium, Super Bowl Central, and the equally popular Mons Venus, a short drive down Dale Mabry Highway.

"The skyline is spectacular, especially at night," said Harbuck, who spent four hours Sunday filming everything from the bay's blue waters to the glistening glass of downtown's skyscrapers.

With our tour at an end, Harbuck headed the airship back to Vandenburg, where a dozen of Bud One's support crew would catch her dangling lines and secure her to the ground.

"You'll see the true meaning of bedrock aviation when we land ... just a bunch of guys on the ground dragging their feet," Harbuck said. "This is the fun part."

Rides such as this usually are reserved for celebrities, officials and occasionally members of the media. But this year, Anheuser-Busch began letting anybody who logs on to Budweiser.com have a chance at winning a ride on Bud One.

"Plenty of regular folks have been aboard," Harbuck said. "Joe Six-Pack, so to speak."

But be forewarned, Joe. You'll have to bring your own beer.

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