Taking Off With the MetLife Blimp
Patch gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the blimp, which is flying over Congressional Country Club during the U.S. Open.
The iconic MetLife blimp is flying over the Congressional Country Club during the U.S. Open this week. While showing off the MetLife logo with Snoopy smiling in the corner, the blimp films aerial shots of the U.S. Open for TV networks. A radio in the blimp is connected with a producer on the ground who tells the blimp what shots to get.
However, when the tournament is not going on, the blimp floats three feet off the ground at the Frederick Airport 35 miles from Bethesda.
At 7:30 Friday morning, the MetLife crew is preparing the blimp. The sun is just above the horizon as the crew of 13 begins making their way out to a grassy field where the blimp resides. About 300 feet away, MetLife trailers hold necessary equipment.
“Today we’ve got about nine hours of TV coverage,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, one of the blimp's pilots. He will be flying the afternoon shift from 2-8 p.m. Fitzpatrick and head pilot Chris Carlin split the day into two shifts so that each pilot flies five or six hours. There is no bathroom on the blimp, so the two must monitor their bladders wisely.
The MetLife blimp is 140 feet long and weighs between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds. However, the cab, where the driver and cameraman sit, is only slightly bigger than the inside of a car.
“No one pays attention to airplanes, but a blimp is like a billboard in the sky,” Fitzpatrick said.
The cameraman is Bob Michaelson. Wearing aviator sunglasses, he walks over to the blimp’s camera, which is positioned outside the cab. Fitzpatrick first took Michaelson up in the blimp in 1984.
Michaelson is an innovator. He fitted the blimp with the camera on the outside of the cab, which can be controlled from the inside. He said that he got the idea from the military. “The cameras now are a lot smaller and lighter [than they were in 1984],” Michaelson said. However, the first fitted camera he installed was reliable, and that is most important.
“Before [Michaelson,] the door would be open and the cameraman would be half in and half out of the blimp,” Fitzpatrick said.
A blimp requires meticulous monitoring to keep it from going too high or losing its shape. According to Jake Svegl, the assistant crew chief, the blimp does not have any infrastructure, so the crew and pilots must constantly monitor the pressure of the balloon. Inside, the familiar MetLife logo is a smaller balloon that can adjust the pressure. Direct sunlight causes the helium in the balloon to expand, adding pressure, while clouds and colder weather cause it to shrink.
The crew and pilots try to keep the blimp at a constant equilibrium so that it is neither rising nor falling when the engines are running. In order to do this the crew must watch how much weight is inside the blimp. Shop bags, which look like large bean bags, are used to equalize the weight. When someone steps onto the blimp, bags are thrown off. The pilot must take into account the fuel weight—the blimp burns about 30 gallons a day—camera equipment and weight of passengers.
By 8:30 the blimp’s engines are puttering. The mechanic accelerates the propellers to listen for any inconsistencies. The craft moves about 35 miles per hour when it’s cruising. Once the check is done the crew unhinges the blimp from its mooring and walks it out further into the grassy field. With Carlin and Michaelson inside, the blimp begins to hum and picks up speed, and soon it is racing across the field gaining altitude.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jake Svegl, assistant crew chief. We regret the error.