Danville Express

Column - July 20, 2007

The blimp beat

Lucky reporter spends a day floating over the Bay

by Jordan M. Doronila

When my editor assigned me to ride on the Goodyear Blimp to cover a tour of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco, I was excited. I'd never been on a blimp, I got to see the ocean on a weekday, and I had the opportunity to sleep longer in the morning than I usually do.

I arrived around noon last Thursday at Air Kaiser, where I was to board the Goodyear Blimp, at Oakland International Airport. I met up with Jeb Bing, the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly, which is a sister paper of the Danville Weekly. We headed into a conference room and met up with Goodyear staff: David Zivkovich, a district manager; Jon Conrad, the pilot; and Bob Urahausen, another pilot, and other employees. A father and daughter and another woman were sitting in the room, too, waiting to ride the blimp.

Jeb fired off a barrage of questions at Conrad and Urahausen about the history of Goodyear, how the two of them got into the business.

The blimp was in town to help televise last week's All-Star baseball game, and they discussed Goodyear's involvement in it. I can't remember if they were talking about the San Francisco Giants or the Oakland A's. I was raised in New Jersey to believe there are the New York Yankees and there is everybody else. I did hear Conrad saying he came from Nebraska, and he put his fist in the air and said, "Huskies."

He went on to say he learned to fly helicopters as a young adult and found a pilot job at Goodyear. He said he traveled and trained for four years and was offered a pilot position when someone at Goodyear retired.

"I have the best job in the world," he said.

When the blimp was about to land after its previous flight, we climbed into a van and headed out onto the field to meet it. After we got out, Conrad told us to stand in a single file and wait and listen for someone to call us to board.

As the blimp approached, its propellers were deafening. Ground crew ran toward it and held it down to prepare for boarding. The six of us stood waiting but not in a single line as instructed. It was more like candy from a burst pinata.

Crew members held the blimp steady as the wind blew. As one person left the gondola from the previous flight, one from my group got in. The gondola is the area under the billowing blimp where the pilot sits, and it carries a total of seven passengers. The blimp is run by helium controlled by the pilot.

When the crew chief called my name, I was ready.

"Come on board and take the seat all the way to the back!" he yelled over the noise.

I ran to the gondola and quickly made my way up the ladder and to my seat. I put on the large headphones provided to shut out the noise and so we could communicate with each other, and looked out the window. When we were all inside and crew members shut the door, the blimp rapidly moved upward to the sky.

I admit at times I have a fear of heights. My emotions raced and a drizzle of worries rained in my thoughts, as I wondered what it would feel like if the blimp would crash. I focused on some spiritual words of wisdom and allowed them to enter my heart. Soon, I forgot my worries and enjoyed the ride - and the view. Wow. What a view it was.

We rode more than 1,000 feet above the Bay and San Francisco. It was silent inside the gondola.

"Everyone is quiet," Conrad said. "Don't you have any questions? Are you in awe?"

"Scared to death," Jeb replied in a deadpan tone.

The sun glistened in bright yellow rays across the blue sky, which contained streaks of white subtle clouds. I saw gray waves moving swiftly as I looked down at the water. But the swells looked green near the Embarcadero and blue in the distance by the Golden Gate Bridge.

Peace and unity soothed my inner being as the luminous sun and the deep ocean embraced me as I rode on the Goodyear Blimp, taking photos to capture what I saw.

I thought about asking everyone if they saw the film "A View To A Kill" where James Bond rides on a blimp above the Golden Gate Bridge and fights the Christopher Walken villain, with the blimp eventually exploding and sinking disastrously into the Bay. Nah. I didn't think it would help their enjoyment.

When I got back to my office, my editor liked my pictures.

"Well, your job isn't bad," she said. "You get to roll out of bed at 10 a.m. and ride a blimp while we're slaving away here at the office."


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