In a Blimp Above Md., Walking On Air

Ellen-Sue Ryan, who won a contest for her family to fly in the Goodyear Blimp, talks with pilot Corky Belanger. When the engines cut off, "you're a balloon. You just float. You just go with the wind," Belanger says. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

Ellen-Sue Ryan screamed when she heard she had won a ride in a blimp. She enters lots of contests, and she has good luck. But this was a big one: She loves to fly.

So does her 9-year-old son, Andrew, who was there with five or six friends at their house in Alexandria when word came this month, and they all started yelling and jumping, too.

But yesterday, the forecast was for thunderstorms all day. The air was heavy. Lightning crackled across the dark sky.

The Ryans drove to Frederick Municipal Airport anyway.

Most of the blimp flights got canceled. The big navy-and-yellow Goodyear airship, fat with helium, sat on the field. Grounded. Even a light rain can add 500 pounds to the weight of the blimp.

Just in time, the storms passed. The family -- Ellen-Sue, husband Tom, their daughter, Elizabeth 16, and Andrew -- climbed into the gondola underneath, surrounded by windows.

Andrew sat next to the pilot, Corky Belanger, looking forward to taking off: "I just like the feeling of it."

The engines grumbled on, loud enough that passengers had to shout to be heard over them. Crew members pulled ropes at the nose; another group stood underneath the gondola, pushing the blimp off the ground.

It lifted up, lighter than air.

Andrew stuck his head out the window, fingers curled over the edge, wind sending his reddish hair flying back. He looked back at his mother, father and sister and laughed. Below, crew members in the field waved at him. He stuck his head back out.

"You're like a dog," Elizabeth said.

The blimp soared up to 1,000 to 1,500 feet, gliding along about 35 mph. That's low enough, and slow enough, to read road signs or see dogs' tails wagging. The passengers drifted over a housing development, a ballpark. A bright green toy alligator floated in a pool. A little boy bounced on a trampoline. A woman pedaling a pink bicycle rode down the center of a country road. A flock of geese took off, wings beating the air.

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