THE SKIES OF HARTFORD AND MIDDLESEX COUNTIES—— Pilot Jeff Capek reaches to his right and begins to turn the wheel at his hip that controls the angle and elevation of Snoopy One, the MetLife blimp that floats tranquilly over so many major sporting events.
The blimp — airship, actually — is about to nosedive to a 20-degree angle, which seems rather insignificant.
"There's a slight delay," Capek says, still spinning the wheel about 1,200 feet above the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
And then Snoopy One, this massive nylon chamber made weightless with 69,000 cubic feet of helium, quickly tips forward, darting, it seems, toward the ground.
"Only 20 degrees," Capek says, "but you'd swear you're looking straight down."
Indeed. Quad muscles are key here, unless you want to slide forward in your seat with your face pressed to the windshield like the cellphones that rest on the dash. Snoopy One, 132 feet long and 45 feet high, is more agile than you might think. The view from the gondola — not even the size of a small car — is breathtaking on a clear day such as Friday, and the ride can be, believe it or not, a little like a roller coaster.
Snoopy One, based on the East Coast, and sister ship Snoopy Two, based on the West, cover the continental U.S. and hover over PGA Tour events, NFL games, Triple Crown races and more. Snoopy, the "Peanuts" character and the MetLife logo, adorns the side, and 350 pounds of camera equipment are mounted to the bottom for live telecasts. At Capek's control, the ship bobs, weaves, dips, climbs and spins in an effort to capture a tournament's most captivating moments from high above.
Friday morning, Snoopy One was tied to a mast in the middle of a field at Hartford's Brainard Airport. A crew of 13, including Capek and crew chief Cory Yglesias, work to get it off the ground, adding and subtracting 25-pound sandbags to make sure the weight and balance are correct, pulling on ropes to properly position it for takeoff.
Capek soon says into the headset microphone, "Brainard tower, good morning, our ship is Snoopy One." The ship is quickly skyward, two propellers making for easy acceleration. It sounds like a lawnmower. After dipping a couple hundred feet to avoid an oncoming helicopter, Snoopy One is traveling about 40 mph, heading south along the Connecticut River like a bulky truck would trudge along the right lane of I-91.
There is a clear view of the Hartford and New Haven skylines, Rentschler Field in East Hartford, the UConn Health Center in Farmington. And then the TPC, its 18 holes, the galleries, the jam-packed parking lots, the signature Travelers umbrella in the middle of the lake near the finishing holes. Snoopy One runs on gasoline, and Friday's 50-minute trip burned only about four gallons.
For the crew, moving from event to event is the big project. For instance, Snoopy One arrived this week after a four-day flight from Memphis. Capek, maybe joined by a colleague or two, will fly the blimp; the rest make their way via trucks. They must be ready to change course if weather forces the blimp, which becomes unsafe in winds over 20 mph, to do the same.
This is a lifestyle as much as a job. Like most of the crew, Capek (Jacksonville) and Yglesias (Lakeland) are based in Florida, where the blimp spends winters. Another no-no for blimps: snow. Too much accumulates and could collapse the ship. Forget Super Bowl XLVIII, to be held at Giants Stadium in 2014.
"No chance, no way, that there's a blimp there for that," Yglesias said.
Capek, 37, has been piloting Snoopy One for 10 years. A Pittsburgh native, he attended aeronautical school in Daytona Beach, Fla. A few years later, a friend hooked him up with someone on a blimp crew. He's rarely home during the spring and summer, plodding around the country, positioning the blimp in just the right spot as, say, Tiger Woods lines up for a critical putt.
Amid the silence of golfing galleries, the drone of the blimp propellers can be heard on the course and on television, which is why Capek often slows to about half speed. During the epic playoff round of the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods backed away from a putt as the blimp entered his field of vision.
Then again, Capek said, golfers have been known to study the ship in an effort to gauge wind.
"They throw grass, look at trees, and if that doesn't help, they look at the blimp," Capek said.
Capek has seen the nation from above a dozen times over. Snoopy One is part of a group of about 15 ships worldwide owned by The Lightship Group, based in Orlando and Telford, England. The group leases its airships to companies looking to advertise, such as MetLife.
With fewer than about 25 in the world, blimps inspire a good deal of curiosity. When Capek lands, usually at small airfields like Brainard, cars will often stop.
Beyond anything, though, ships like Snoopy One have basic functions — to advertise and televise.
"Really," Capek said, "I'm a camera platform."
At events, Capek is joined by a camera operator, with whom he must be in constant communication in order to be at the right angle, or over the right hole, or over the right group of players. The airport tower chatter is virtually nonstop through the headset. Producers in the television truck are constantly in his ear, too.
"It never stops," he said. "So you're listening to three people. Then there will be a rare minute of silence and, inevitably, they all start talking again at once. I have selective listening skills. I don't hear anything until key words like 'blimp,' or 'Snoopy.' "
Capek goes weeks without seeing his longtime girlfriend. Yglesias, like many crew members, is single.
"Not a job for a married person," said Yglesias, who grew up in New York and New Jersey. "This crew basically stays together and doesn't split up. ... It's like a traveling circus, 52 weeks a year on the road. It gets in your blood. I didn't think I'd be here [after 12 years], but here I am."