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The Business Of Blimps (And How I Got A Ride In One)

Wednesday, 3 Sep 2008 | 11:16 AM ET

When the U.S. Open kicked off this year, I once again noticed the blimp hovering overhead on the television coverage. Except this time, it wasn't a familiar name like Goodyear or Fujifilm. This one had DirecTV branding on it.

Seeking to find out more about how the business of blimps worked, I contacted the folks at the satellite provider who set me up with a blimp ride yesterday.

The DirecTV HDStarship (its proper name) is actually operated by the Lightship Group, a company that operates almost every blimp floating around in the U.S. and Europe--with the exception of three Goodyear blimps. DirecTV pays the Lightship Group to custom make the airship, which includes a humungous 30 by 70 foot lighted screen.

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When I met my pilot Carl Harbuck I was immediately struck by how much of a niche job this is. Harbuck, who has been flying blimps for 12 years, said he's one of about 100 licensed blimp pilots in the world--many of whom are not even active.

The blimp not only looks weird, the whole operation is uniquely strange from taking the blimp nose off its mooring to the dozen men who are required to take it out upon take off and run after the ropes attached to it on landing.

Sitting in the passenger cabin called the gondola is just like being in a private jet--except you have a 178 foot long balloon over your head filled with 170,000 cubic feet of purified helium.

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There's no steering wheel on the thing--there's a wheel on each side of the pilot and two pedals to move the airship up and down.

It was a gorgeous day and there were almost no bumps at the 1,500 feet we were flying at. I wasn't really nervous until Harbuck shut off the engines--which run on jet fuel--to prove (over the Hudson River) that the blimp could stay buoyant without power.

Given that it's a small group of blimp pilots in the world, I asked Carl if he knew the circumstances behind the XFL blimp. That blimp, which crashed 2001, I always suspected was somehow a master plan by modern day P.T. Barnum, Vince McMahon, who of course owned half of the upstart football league. Since a crashed blimp generates a whole lot more publicity that one floating through the air, I thought McMahon called for it to crash--the pilot survived-- and would easily pay the $2.5 million in damage the airship sustained in exchange for the buzz. Carl said he knew the pilot and said it was definitely an accident.

One more thing on the business of blimps before you see the video below. Ever notice how there are never two blimps over a stadium at the same time? Well, that's because companies pay for the air rights to sporting events and in exchange for one air to ground shot of the event, get one ground to air promotional shot from the network.

Bouncing High in the Air
An up close look DirectTV blimp hovering over the U.S. Open, with CNBC's Darren Rovell

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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