David J. Neal

Ride of a lifetime in Snoopy One

Pilot Terry Dillard takes the blimp to Trump National Doral on Friday.
Pilot Terry Dillard takes the blimp to Trump National Doral on Friday. dneal@miamiherald.com

My Friday mornings usually don’t find me sitting in a passenger seat, a window to my right open, phone in my right hand, Apple product in my left hand, notepad under my left thigh and barf bag under my right thigh.

Then again, my Friday mornings usually involve school drop-off lines. None of those involve hanging 1,500 feet over Trump National Doral’s Blue Monster in a cockpit gently swaying back and forth.

The other guy in the cockpit, airship Captain Terry Dillard? It’s his every Friday morning. And afternoon. And Saturday. And Sunday. As Dillard said, the MetLife blimp, Snoopy One, knows no weekends and few days off. It’s busy giving the TV audience the view of sports venues to which we’ve become accustomed a few times a broadcast.

When the PGA Tour folks asked last week if I would like a blimp ride, I quickly replied in the affirmative. I had no blimp experience. Besides, I’m a great flier — on planes.

You can bounce my planes all over the sky and I’ll just pick up my drink to make sure no alcohol spills. Fellow former Panthers/NHL reporter Mike Russo might still tell the story of the time our plane taking off from Washington National wavered so much the wing outside my window almost touched the ground. Meanwhile, I stayed on topic during a plane phone harangue of the Panthers media relations vice president.

But Friday, as Dillard walked me across Hollywood’s North Perry Airport field toward Snoopy One, he asked me “How are you on boats?”

I paused. “I’m OK,” I said, thinking I’m a much better swimmer than I am a boat passenger.

“Because, this is an airship. It moves like a boat. Some people, when they hear that …” — he pivoted and walked the other direction.

Instinct anticipated this. Instead of my usual breakfast — three to four sausages, two bowls of cereal, an English muffin or two — I dined light: two bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Not Cinnamon Toast Crunch and certainly not Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries.

The crew of 13 went about their business preparing Snoopy One. Dillard had them remove the right side window so window glare wouldn’t ruin my shots. The crew travels with Snoopy One. Dillard said they’re on the road all year, 52 weeks. Each man gets four weeks of vacation to split as he pleases. As for the blimp, its only days off come after flying to its next location or if the weather’s not conducive.

Friday’s clear, sunny morning invited flight. I belted down on the left side of a back seat wide enough for two. Too close to that window and I could see me fumbling my phone down several hundred feet into traffic or the 10th tee. I donned the headphones through which I could hear Dillard, but also hear the air-traffic controllers.

Dillard reached above his left shoulder, pulled out a barf bag and passed it back to me: “Just in case you need it!”

“Oh, I might,” I airily replied while complimenting myself on altering my breakfast.

The crew unmoored Snoopy One and, almost immediately, it began swaying like the hips of a Brazilian salsa dancer shot by NFL Films. This motion accompanied all rises and turns during the 20 to 25 minutes to Doral. Once I got used to it enough to stop bracing myself against the back wall, I noticed Dillard drove with his left elbow casually on a small open window. At first, I thought his right hand was massaging his right thigh, as you do when you need to stretch your legs during a long drive. I finally noticed his right hand was dropped to the side, on the steering wheel, which is in the floor.

Friday’s second round wouldn’t start for an hour at Doral, so the most sports-related action we saw was Sun Life Stadium renovations.

Meanwhile, over the buzz of the engines, I listened to the air-traffic controllers of North Perry, Opa-locka and Miami airports move the areas traffic up, down, around. At one point, a controller told a plane to “maintain visual” on Snoopy One.

I thought, maintain visual? It’s a fat, funkin’-for-Jamaica blimp with one of world’s most beloved comic strip characters on the side! You’re flying a plane! I should hope you can maintain visual!

Speaking of visuals, big picture beauty devoured details. An airship’s flight stays in those moments between a plane descending through the clouds and final approach. It allows a visual hug of South Florida, from the offices and condos silhouetted to the east to the endless expanses to the west.

Now as comfortable in Snoopy One as in a 737-400 jet, I asked Dillard if he ever tired of this view.

“Never,” he said, “It’s not a bad office view ...”

After we landed, Dillard turned, shook my hand and said, “I’ve got to go to work!”

I hopped down. A photographer boarded. Snoopy One rose once again.

And I wanted breakfast … and another ride.

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