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Florida by blimp

We rocked in the small cradle mounted beneath the aerial behemoth. At 400 feet our ominous shadow looked like a huge gray whale in the beautiful blue-green waters of the Atlantic.

The engine suddenly faded and Capt. Mike Fitzpatrick said, "One of the best things about blimps is that you can stop in midair if you want to see something below." Our view of the nurse sharks circling 500 feet from the shoreline was as good as if we were in a glass-bottom boat.

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The engines came back to cruise power, our air speed crawled up to 35 m.p.h., and we resumed our 30-minute jaunt.

The airship enterprise, moored in Pompano Beach, Fla., is the only blimp in the world on which you can buy a ride. The impressive lighter-than-air crafts is the newest in Goodyear's fleet of tour and a descendant of man's earliest form of powered flight.

The Enterprise is an identical twin to her sister ships based in Houston, Los Angeles, and Rome. All are named after former winners of the America's Cup yacht races. The Enterprise has been in service for just over a year.

The Enterprise may be called a blimp, airship (nonrigid type), or dirigible. Since it is nonrigid, it is not a zeppelin, which has an internal framework. Because it is engine-driven and steerable, it is not a balloon.

The word "blimp" was invented by a Royal Navy Air Service lieutenant who was a commanding officer of a British Airship Station. In December, 1915, when Lt. Cunningham was conducting his weekly inspection, he broke the formality of the occasion by playfully flipping his thumb against the gas-bag. An odd noise echoed off the taut fabric. He orally imitated the sound his thumb drummed out: "BLIMP!" -- and so did the midshipman in command of the airship. The humorous inspection interlude was repeated often until the word "blimp" became entrenched in the language of flight.

While the word "blimp" is common in our language, the type of aircraft it describes is not. Today Goodyear's lighter-than-air craft are the only ones operating on a regular schedule in the world. They are a colorful link with the romantic beginnings of aviation. Airplanes and helicopters have far outdistanced the airship in development and utilization, but a spark of the romantic age of flight flashes wherever the 200-foot-long aerial rubber raft reappears.

The Enterprises carries passengers only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday by reservation; these are accepted on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The blimp flies from Pompano Beach from November to May . The rest of the year (and during the winter-spring period for some special events) it barnstorms.

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The phone company estimates that the Goodyear office, located in a trailer at Pompano Air Park, receives 1,000 calls the first five minutes at the time reservations are accepted. The ride on the $3 million blimp costs $7.50 for adults and $5 for children.

At night the blimp is a super sky spectacular of 7,000 blinking lights, with red, blue, green, and yellow reflectors. The fully computerized flying billboard, the largest in the world, creates animated pictures and messages. They are displayed at 1,000 feet and can be easily read for a mile on either side. About three-fourths of the communications are public-service messages. These range from the support of worthy causes to reminders to conserve energy and gas-saving tips.

Interestingly, the blimp is a gas-saving form of transportation. Since the helium inside the envelope is the primary source of lift, the blimp can operate eight hours a day for nearly a week on the fuel a jet uses to taxi from ramp to runway.

Goodyear pioneered the use of helium, a nonflammable gas. The Hindenburg disaster was caused by its use of hydrogen, a highly flammable lifting agent. The helium used in the Enterprise provides 90 percent of the lift, and the craft's aerodynamic properties supply the rest. The Enterprise carries enough ballast that it could release the weight and remain aloft even if its engines were turned off.

Flights, however, are canceled if weather conditions aren't suitable. None of its six pilots will fly if winds reach about 20 m.p.h. This is not so much that it affects the ride as that it makes boarding and disembarking more difficult and precarious.

Actually, a blimp may be the safest form of transportation in the world. It's even possible that the cigar-shaped aircraft could put the fun of getting there back into flying.

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