Blimp with a View | A Special Ride in the Hood Blimp
I arrived at the Beverly airport twenty minutes early. It isn’t everyday a person has the opportunity to ride in a blimp, and I wasn’t about to miss my chance because of traffic or a lost GPS signal. It was a warm, sunny Massachusetts morning in mid-September with clear blue skies. Perfect blimp-flying weather.
As a New Englander, I am, of course, talking about the Hood blimp with its telltale red oval logo. Hood is a longtime New England company, dating back to 1846 when Harvey Perley Hood began operating a dairy business out of Charlestown, MA. Today the Hood dairy company (HP Hood LLC) is based in Lynnfield, MA and is one of New England’s most recognizable dairy brands, with products ranging from milk and ice cream to sour cream and seven flavors of seasonal eggnog.
And let’s not forget my favorite, the Hoodsie cup.
Since 1947 the neatly divided chocolate and vanilla ice cream cups (peel back the paper top and dig in with a wooden spoon if you can get your hands on one) have been a summer cookout, school party, and birthday celebration staple for nearly all New England kids.
The Hood blimp came along later. It began cruising the summer skies in 1996, most recognizably over Fenway Park, where it captures aerial footage of the field during baseball games. As the “official dairy of the Boston Red Sox” it’s no surprise that Hood carries special flavors like Green Monster Mint, Comeback Caramel, and Fenway Fudge — each featuring milk-chocolate “Sox.”
Right on time, a pickup truck with the Hood logo swung into the lot, and a trim man in his early sixties emerged, smiling beneath a neat mustache and wearing a Hood polo.
“You must be waiting for me!” he said.
It was longtime Hood blimp pilot Leigh Bradbury. After we shook hands I climbed in next to him and we made our way to the where the blimp was (for lack of a better word) tethered. “So which route do you want to take?” Leigh asked as we passed through the secure gate and onto the airfield. “Over the city and Fenway Park or up along the coast where you’ll get the chance to see some lighthouses and all the nice summer homes?”
I was temporarily stumped. I hadn’t considered the option of going anywhere BUT over Boston, but since it wasn’t a game day, and I had already experienced a memorable view of Boston’s top ballpark covering Behind the Scenes at Fenway Park’s 100th Anniversary Celebration, I told Leigh to head for the coast. He seemed pleased with my decision.
Then the blimp came into view. This is the first season since 2008 that Hood has leased the blimp, and it’s been a busy one, including a dozen Red Sox home games, numerous festivals, and plenty of trips like mine with no set agenda.
The blimp is big — 36 feet wide, 44 feet high, and 128 feet long. It’s filled with 68,000 cubic feet of helium, and Leigh told me it takes a week or two in the hangar to inflate and deflate each season. The red Hood seal is a decal, which was a surprise to me, but like MBTA busses “wrapped” in promotional advertising, blimps get a new outfit for each job.
A closer look revealed how carefully and intricately the blimp was constructed. Up close it reminded me of a marionette.
As a crew member made some final adjustments inside the cockpit, Leigh and I waited our turn to board. The inside of the “gondola” has two seats up front with a bench seat behind them. It’s cozy but comfy quarters.
As I settled into the co-pilot seat, Leigh shared a bit of the seat’s past. “Mick Jagger sat there once,” he says, pointing to my seat. “This blimp was the official east coast Rolling Stones blimp promoting their tour back in 2002.” It had a different decal then, of course.
As the crew prepared us for takeoff (liftoff?) I checked out the flickering dash in front of me. The controls meant nothing to my eyes, but fortunately, Leigh has been piloting blimps for a variety of companies like MetLife and Monster.com since 1993 (and all manner of aircraft dating back to his senior year of high school) and knows his stuff.
I strapped on my headphones and positioned the microphone in front of my mouth so Leigh and I could talk easily, and then it was go-time. Almost immediately, we were in the air. It happened quickly and without turbulence.
The view was spectacular. Unlike airplanes, where there are just seconds on the ascent or descent to enjoy a view high enough to give perspective but low enough to show detail, a blimp ride is almost totally bird’s eye view.
With the airport behind us, we angled towards the harbor.
Once I adjusted to the fact that I was gliding above the Massachusetts coast, I got a good look at how Leigh was controlling the blimp. His chair resembled a wheel chair on the sides, with pedals at his feet. The wheels controlled the up-and-down motion, while the pedals worked the rudders to move left or right — no traditional steering wheel!
Leigh is a native of Arizona and is based out of San Fransisco, so when I asked him what towns were passing below us he pulled out the map and traced our intended route from Beverly past Manchester-by-the-Sea and up to Gloucester.
We stuck to around 1,000 feet while we were over thickly settled ground, but once things thinned out we were able to dip down to 500 feet.
In front of me was the blimp’s windshield, but to my right was a window, and again unlike an airplane, it was wide open. I stuck my arm out of it to feel the breeze, then stuck my head out of it (just a little) for the ultimate 360 degree view.
Closer to Beverly, houses and businesses were clustered together and boats dotted the harbors and inlets. Because the ocean was on my side of the blimp on the first leg of the trip, I waited until the coastline was out my window before taking the majority of my photos.
As we circled around Gloucester and headed back, Leigh pointed out the popular Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, built in 1925 to commemorate the loss of thousands of fishermen throughout Gloucester’s long fishing history.
While the Hood blimp is known for taking in the sights at Fenway Park, I’m glad to say my ride wasn’t without a diamond of its own.
And what’s this? A castle on the Massachusetts coast?
Rocky peninsulas jutted out, many with the impressive “summer homes” Leigh had mentioned. He hadn’t been exaggerating.
Like a gliding ship, the slow-moving shadow of the blimp on the water below kept perfect pace with us in the sky.
Also as promised, a lighthouse was part of the show.
We glided along gently at around 35 miles per hour (the blimp moves slower in Boston), feeling like a balloon on the breeze, which is exactly what we looked like. Leigh told me that one time he was flying over a school field near Concord, NH when a group of cheerleaders on the field spelled out “HI” with their bodies.
People get excited to see the Hood blimp, and Hood responded by sponsoring a contest this year titled the “Hood Blimp Spotting” campaign, encouraging fans to post photos of the blimp on the Hood Facebook page or tweet a photo with the #HoodBlimp hashtag. Each “share” gave fans the opportunity to win Hood/Red Sox prizes packs including game tickets, ice cream parties, and even rides in the blimp!
Meanwhile, my blimp ride continued along the stunning Massachusetts north shore.
The coastline view showed the clear contrast between how the ocean behaves on two sides of a thin strip of land. Look at the difference in color and surf! I wonder if the residents of this house built the in-ground pool on the tip so they didn’t have to choose which was better for swimming.
The first blushes of foliage were creeping into the landscape, outshining even the stateliest of coastal mansions.
All too quickly, however, my time in the blimp was running out.
We descended into Beverly airport, and Leigh pointed out the crew in V-formation up ahead, already in position awaiting our arrival.
As we gently bumped to a stop the crew ran to their posts, grabbing ropes and securing the blimp with efficient precision. The crew chief kept things organized with a series of hand signals that were both amusing and impressive. These guys were clearly a well-trained team.
After thanking Leigh for the “airship experience of a lifetime” I asked him to pose for a photo with me in front of the blimp, despite the fact that my hair clearly revealed that I’d been having too much fun leaning out the window into the ocean breeze.
Some experiences are worth a bad hair day. My sincere and enthusiastic thanks to Hood and Captain Leigh Bradbury for the opportunity to see the world (at least our little gorgeous corner of it) from a ride in the Hood blimp and share it with Yankee’s online readers!
Keep your eyes skyward and peeled for the Hood blimp, and if you ever win your own trip aboard, be sure to take photos and share it with us!