PITTSFIELD, Maine — Sure, a blimp probably isn’t the most efficient mode of transportation there is, but for blimp pilot Bret Viets this is getting a little ridiculous.
Limestone, Lincoln, now Pittsfield. Destination: Florida.
“I was hoping to make it to Hartford, Connecticut, tonight,” said Viets on Friday evening at Pittsfield Municipal Airport. “That obviously ain’t going to happen.”
The blimp had been marooned at the Lincoln airport by bad weather since Wednesday, but made a break for it Friday afternoon.
“We just have to look at the weather and see how far we get,” Viets told a Bangor Daily News reporter in Lincoln. The weather forecast didn’t look good over Augusta, so the blimp and its road-based support crew ended the voyage in Pittsfield, which Viets said is one of the shortest hops he has ever flown.
Across the small Pittsfield Municipal Airport runway, there it was in graceful weightlessness, nose tethered to a red-and-white portable tower. Cars lined Peltoma Avenue and onlookers walked into a nearby cemetery or stood at the fence near the tarmac as the airship, with its hulking advertisement for Hangar 1 Vodka, circled overhead.
Jeannette Crommett and her friend followed it here by car from Hartland.
“We first saw it coming from Newport way,” she said. “It’s like we’ve been following it all afternoon.”
Viets, who pilots the blimp for 320 days a year for a company called The Light Ship Group, said he had mixed emotions about his stop in Pittsfield. On one hand, he enjoys the excitement his 128-foot bulbous beauty can cause in small-town Maine (“In New York City there’s always blimps,” he said). On the other hand, every minute on the ground is a quarter- to a half-mile that he’s NOT closer to Florida. The ship will go almost 35 mph on a good day.
“How much headwind can you handle?” asked Caleb Curtis, who runs the airport and pilots small planes himself.
“Right up until we start going backwards,” said Viets.
The blimp’s departure reopened the Lincoln airport to regular air traffic, which it had been closed to since the 128-foot-long, 45-foot-tall airship arrived there Wednesday. While en route to Florida after being assembled and lettered at the Loring Development Authority in Limestone, the blimp diverted to Lincoln because of threatening weather and after one of its ground crew pickup trucks developed a mechanical problem.
The crew had hoped to leave Lincoln on Thursday, but overcast skies ruined that plan, Viets said. The blimp operates best in skies with 1,000-foot ceilings, which were nowhere in evidence in Lincoln or the Bangor region during most of the week.
The dozen ground crew members stayed at a Lincoln hotel, becoming something like celebrities and autographing newspaper pictures of their airship, crew member Frankie Darosa said. That same crew could be in for more of the same in Pittsfield, where they bedded down at the Pittsfield Motor Inn.
In Lincoln, and again in Pittsfield, the blimp essentially became the biggest wind sock the airports likely will ever have, turning on the mast in whatever direction the gusts blew, rising slightly as the wind caught it, making admission to the cockpit dangerous for all but ground crew members, Darosa said.
And even for them, climbing aboard can be a risky business.
“Sometimes it rises so slowly and you don’t even notice,” Darosa said. “You climb aboard [with the cockpit ladder a few feet from the ground] and suddenly you’re 10 or 15 feet up before you know it.”
The letup of the drizzly rain that had pelted the airport for most of Friday and the promise of clearer skies to the south made moving on feasible, Viets said in Lincoln.
Once it gets to Miami, the airship will embark upon a national tour through most of the summer, visiting Richmond, Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Buffalo and the South and Far West before ending its tour in the San Francisco Bay area on Nov. 20. It is promoting Hangar 1 Vodka for the San Francisco-based distillery, which is located in a hangar at the former Alameda Air Force Base.
A second blimp owned by The Light Ship Group — which will advertise Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield — is being assembled at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. Viets said it will be taking off in the coming days, but that it might be the last time Mainers see his blimps, despite the fact that Loring has one of the only hangars in the Northeast that’s big enough.
“Why did we start in Loring if we’re going to Florida? I have no idea but we probably won’t do it again,” said Viets. “Logistics, you know?”