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Jennifer Robison

M Resort blimp pilot one of a kind

9 March 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When you look up into the sky and see the M Resort blimp hovering above, you're looking at a rarity.

You're watching Terry Dillard, one of just 56 certified blimp pilots in the world, steering one of just three of the planet's airships with video screens on the side. As Dillard likes to point out, Earth houses more space shuttle pilots than it claims blimp captains. And, for that matter, the United States has as many space shuttles as it has video-screened airships.

As chief pilot for the Lightship Group, a Florida blimp-operating contractor with 12 airships, Dillard is four months into a two-year assignment flying the M Resort's promotional ship over the Southwest United States to pump the hotel-casino, which opened March 1. Dillard, who has roughly 13,000 hours of blimp flight time, has flown airships across North America from north to south at least three times. In addition to flying over Las Vegas, Dillard is taking the M blimp to San Diego, Phoenix and San Francisco, taking to the air for 30 hours a week in the evenings.

Dillard got his start in 1974, flying hot air balloons over Walt Disney World and SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. He's flown blimps since 1991.

What appealed to you about a career flying balloons and blimps?

I could never do a desk job. I could never go into an office or sit in a cubicle. I've had the freedom of being outdoors for the last 30 years, and when I think about being inside in a controlled environment, I realize I'm just not ready to give up the outdoor life.

What kinds of events and trips have you covered via blimp?

I've flown from Key West, Fla., to Bangor, Maine, from Lafayette, La., to Marquette, Mich., and from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia. An airship moves only about 25 miles per hour, so a trip from California to Florida would take two or three weeks. I've done a trip to England a couple of times, and I've flown the Budweiser blimp. The company also flies blimps for Sanyo and Blockbuster.

What brought you to Las Vegas?

It was an opportunity to work for more of a fixed-base operation. Also, this blimp, with the screens on the side, is very rare. Nothing really exciting happened with airships over 80 years, but with these lighted signs on the side, we can take any message to people. We can throw full-color graphics up there, run commercials, televise sporting events, run Amber Alerts -- anything. We've never seen a response from people like we've seen with this airship.

What's a typical day like for you?

We're at the airport at 3:30 with a big crew -- two pilots, two mechanics and 14 crew members. We'll take half an hour or 45 minutes to get fuel on board, get the engines warmed up and get the ship up and running. We look to launch at 4:30 or 5 p.m. and be in the air for six hours five days a week. We usually go out in residential areas until about 8:30 or 9, and after that, we're on the Strip. Then we land, and the crew will be back in by midnight.

What's the most fun part of what you do?

I'm doing half of it right now -- talking to people and telling them how great it is. It's a great part of my life to share my experiences about the things I have done and seen from airships. The other half is taking people flying. I remember way back when, the first time I lifted out of a blimp. You couldn't get me out of my seat, I was just so excited about it. To take people flying now and see the excitement they have on their faces, that takes me back to when I was that excited.

We do a lot of great things with some of our other operations, and we're getting ready to do those things with M. We want to give back to the community, and make the blimp available to do charity work. We don't fly passengers, but we will do tours for groups like the Boy Scouts, the Cub Scouts and churches.

How is sightseeing from a blimp different from other types of air transport?

It's like a flying carpet, a floating submarine and, on a windy day, a wild bull ride. It's great just floating around, being able to go to Red Rock Canyon and Lake Mead and see some of those sights. I'm from Florida, where everything is flat and green.

But the big thing is to see the city come to life at sunset, when the lights start to come up and the Luxor beam starts to brighten, The Mirage's volcano goes off, and the fountains at Bellagio -- it gives you a whole different look at the city. With a plane or a helicopter, you're going more than 100 miles per hour.

What do you see from up there?

We see all the traffic jams and the police pulling people over. When we fly over Seven Hills and places like that, we see all the really nice swimming pools lit up, the decorative landscapes, things like that. When I cross the country and fly over places like Texas, I'll see deer. Over the shorelines in Florida and on the East Coast, we'll see endangered right whales migrating north to south. Along a section of Florida, from Cape Canaveral to Jacksonville, the (right whale) cows give birth to their calves, and I've seen that couple of times. On the West Coast, I've seen beluga whales. We can see a lot of wildlife. We have binoculars on board, and from 1,000 feet in the air, we can read the label on a golf ball with high-definition TV cameras.

I've also had a few eagles and red-tailed hawks come across the front of the airship. They'll usually fly alongside us. In Vancouver, there are thousands of bald eagles. I'll be flying, and a bald eagle will come alongside and turn to look at me. If you could read his mind, I think he'd be saying, "What are you doing up here?" Then they just turn their wings and fly away. We'll also report things we see. If we see a puff of smoke that we think might be a house fire, we'll call the tower and tell them where it is so they can notify the authorities.

Do you get bored?

Usually, when you're on a 10-hour trip, there'll be two pilots and we'll alternate flying. Whoever isn't flying might look for wildlife. We'll look for moose in Maine, or we'll read the paper. We're always looking at the landscape and how pretty it is. We're always looking at houses: "How does that guy afford that house?" It could be 15,000 square feet of house. We'll say, "What does this guy do? His electric bill has to be $2,000 a month." Every flight, every day and every time you leave the ground, when you think you've seen it all, you see something different.

How does this Las Vegas job rank as far as stints you've flown?

Half the job is enjoying who you're working for. Flying the blimp is only 10 percent of what I do. The rest is managing the crew, managing the client and doing interviews like this. When (M Resort developer Anthony Marnell III) and his family come out and say, "You have no idea how much we appreciate what you're doing for us," that right there is a paycheck for us. A lot of large corporate companies we have worked for in the past we didn't give us that personalized interaction. It feels completely different with the Marnell family. They really take care of us.