Blimp pilots have a great vantage point, but lead solitary lives

Allan Judd, who pilots the Metlife blimp Snoopy Two, hovered over the Congressional Country Club in Maryland Thursday to capture footage of the first round of the Quicken Loans National. Judd is a rare breed. There are more astronauts than blimp pilots today. (Katherine Frey and Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

A birthday he was inevitably going to miss was fast approaching, so when Allan Judd stopped by a pilot’s shop for tarts, he looked for something to send his young son. The pilot of a MetLife Snoopy blimp, Judd asked the clerk if she had any stuffed Snoopys.

She looked at him for several seconds before silently walking away. She returned with a Snoopy dressed in a leather pilot’s outfit and goggles and holding a Tommy Bahama bag. She told Judd she had hidden the Snoopy in the store for eight years, but it would be happier with him.

It’s still with him, hanging above the dashboard facing out so it always sees something different. Six years later, Judd says he still sends photos of Snoopy, with different backdrops, to the store clerk. It’s a reminder to both of the adventures he and Snoopy are having.

Blimp pilots have the best seats to some of the grandest sporting events. Judd has flown over two Super Bowls. Fellow pilot Charlie Smith watched Tiger Woods win the 2008 U.S. Open from 2,000 feet above Torrey Pines. Their flights in Snoopy Two over the Quicken Loans National at Congressional this weekend will provide television audiences with aerial views of the action.

The tradeoff is what they don’t see very often — family, friends, a bathroom. Blimp pilots live in the confines of the 8-foot-by-5-foot carriage attached to the belly of their inflated submarine balloon. As the blimp flies from one sporting event to the other, so do the pilots, spending nearly every day in the air. They pack their meals, and they also bring empty bottles to use when they need to relieve themselves.

There are more astronauts than blimp pilots, and Judd, 62, considers it a privilege.

“I feel very special to have been able to see some of these really cool events because they’re timeless,” Judd said. “Those moments in time will never happen again. I was part of it.”

Judd’s done every job from disc jockey to taxi cab driver, but he spent most of his years before blimps on airplanes and ships. When a blimp in Judd’s area had half-price tickets for rides, Judd’s then-wife bought him one as a surprise birthday present. As soon as he stepped on board, he felt it move beneath his feet like a ship while suspended in air — the perfect combination of his two loves.

The pilots prefer the term airship to blimp because of the nautical nature of its movements. The seat has wheels on each side that Judd constantly pushes forward and backward to control the nose. Judd’s feet do the steering: one pedal to move left, one to move right. The manual operation combined with wind and varying temperature causes Snoopy Two to sway, similar to a boat over waves.

This trip over Congressional is tricky because it requires flying into the restricted air space around Washington. Deploying from Frederick Municipal Airport, Snoopy Two reaches the edge of the restricted area but then is told to ground because of an issue with the paperwork. It’s ultimately a misunderstanding, and Snoopy Two’s voyage to Congressional is approved.

En route to the course, Judd whistles and waves to a group doing yoga outside. Snoopy Two approaches Congressional at about 40 mph and relatively low. The sprawling clubhouse is easy to spot from the sky, a mansion in the middle of greenery. Woods’s pairing on the 18th hole is surrounded by colorful specks of onlookers.

Golf can be a challenging sport for a blimp pilot. He has to keep an eye on the golfer’s movements, position the blimp so the camera can have the best angle to follow the ball and do all of that with wind and air pressure making Snoopy sway.

“It’s a vital part of how we cover golf,” said Lance Barrow, CBS’s coordinating producer for the NFL and golf. “Not everything is a flat surface like in other sports. Sometimes the ball gets hit down a hill or something and the camera can’t see it, and we need the blimp camera.”

Snoopy Two is rarely grounded, still floating up and down even when it’s docked by the nose to a mooring mast. Snoopy Two never deflates, and it’s never alone. The crew takes shifts guarding the Snoopy blimps 24/7 to make sure they aren’t damaged.

Though Snoopy Two has a constant companion, blimp pilots rarely do. Smith has tried to have girlfriends, but long-distance relationships take on a new meaning when he’s flying across the country all year and only has four weeks of vacation.

“Some of the downtime can get lonely,” Smith said.

Judd is a rarity in the profession — he’s in a relationship and he has kids. He frequently texts, video chats and makes phone calls from the air. Judd’s girlfriend is the rare significant other who understands his lifestyle. A commercial hot air balloon pilot, she has a similar schedule, and the two see each other when they cross paths on the West Coast.

Judd says his days “begin in peace and end in peace, and everything in the middle is peace.” “Magnificent River” by Patrick O’Hearn plays in Judd’s ear. He doesn’t stream video or television when he’s flying because the sights outside his window are better. He sometimes puts his phone on airplane mode so the buzzing doesn’t disrupt his zen.

Judd might be up in the air for as long as 13 hours. He brings a three-course meal in a cooler — usually nuts to start, steak with garlic mashed potatoes as the main course and grapes as dessert. He uses his binder as a table, draping cloth over it when he eats.

Judd’s home is in Lexington, Va., but he’s rarely there. He uses his vacation time to visit his family, spread from Texas to Florida to Australia. When he misses the familiar rocking motion of Snoopy Two, he goes canoeing. After 25 years in the blimp, he sways when he walks on the ground.

“If I’m on the ground too long, I need to go back up there,” Judd said. “I just love it up there.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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