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Close of Business: Frequent Flyer

by Victoria Moorhouse
If you think a job like, say, Fortune 500 CEO is exclusive—well there are 500 of those guys. But nationwide, there are only about 20 lead blimp pilots. Among them is Terry Dillard, captain of the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey blimp, which has been soaring across the region all summer to raise awareness of both the insurance company and the importance of annual mammograms. It may look effortless gliding through the air, but that oversize helium balloon requires a crew of about 15 to manage and steer it. With a total of 40 years’ experience floating among the clouds, Dillard touched down for a moment to let us in on the highs and lows of the blimp business.

How’d you get into this business?
“Lighter than air” travel, [as in helium- or hot air-filled vessels] has always been fascinating to me. In the last 40 years, I have been flying 20 in hot air balloons, and 20 in airships. What the airships bring to the table is travel. It allows us to travel to San Diego to a Super Bowl, to the Indianapolis 500, and to the Daytona 500.

What’s a typical day at the office for you?
We have a total of 15 people door to door. This consists of two pilots, two mechanics and 11 crewmembers. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey is only one of our nine clients all around the world. Our normal workweek is six hour-flight days in the air, about 30 hours a week. When you put in six hours in the air, there is probably three hours on the ground of refueling, prepping and getting the ship prepped and ready for flight.

What is the strangest thing you have ever seen from the air?
All over the country we have seen a lot of strange different things. Today, there was whale activity off of Asbury Park. We were probably flying over it for 10 to 15 minutes—enough to get some nice photos, because you don’t see that every day.

From June through September you fly over New Jersey. Why do you enjoy working in this area?
The Jersey Shore is very busy. We have a lot of activity, with hundreds of thousands of people that will be at the shore. It is a very good advertising venue for our client, and also we do concerts and baseball games.

What happens when the weather turns bad?
Blimps are fair-weather creatures: barbecues, picnics and parades. We don’t go out flying when it’s raining. Rain is usually associated with thunderstorms. We have a weather radar onboard the airship, and our weather usually comes in from Pennsylvania. It’s OK to go flying, but when the weather starts to hit the Delaware River, you need to be close to your blimp boarding site.

What kind of training do you have to go through to get the job?
The aviator background you have to have is a certification of a single engine/multi-engine instrument instructor before you start flying. There are no blimp schools in the country, so we teach them everything they need to know. We advertise in piloting magazines and we do a screening process. If you don’t like to travel, this isn’t the job for you. If you are a bachelor and have two suitcases, then it may work. We are the largest airship company in the entire world and we have 12 airships…. I also direct the Snoopy MetLife blimp and the DIRECTV blimp.

What would surprise people about this job?
What would surprise people about this job is that it gives you the opportunity to go all over the world. We have one ship in Europe, one in Japan, one in Brazil at the end of the year, and four in the United States. What’s your favorite thing about this business?
The people that we meet, a lot of the charities that we fly. A lot of the kids that we fly have been in the hospital, they may have been in chemotherapy. They have had everything done to them that you can humanly do to them. To come out of the hospital and come into the fresh air that we work in every day, the smiles that we get from our passengers [are what make this job so special].

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 8 (August, 2011).
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