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12 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

The day I rode the Goodyear Blimp

The prickle of adrenalin in my eyeballs turned out to be prophetic.

By Kate Mossman

We were sitting in my old office seven years ago this week, on a fifth floor in Islington, watching a heat haze wobbling above the city, when a familiar blue and yellow shape appeared above the London Eye.

My colleague squinted, and reached for his iPhone.

“The @GoodyearBlimp has just flown past the office. Can you stop and pick us up?” he tweeted.

“Sure, can you DM us?” the blimp replied

That was a surprise. A few days later, the two of us picked our way along a grass verge from Upminster station in Essex and walked two miles to the landing field where the airborne creature, called Spirit of Safety, was making its temporary home. A gazebo was erected near a makeshift car park, and inside, there were tables laid with the kind of spread you’d find at a cricket match: piles of clotted cream, sweating in the tent, and raspberries, and Coke, and a few crispy pieces of bread.

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There was a very light breeze, and across the field the Goodyear Blimp was coming in from one of its passenger trips. It descended, but was helpless, until six men ran in across the field and threw themselves at the long landing ropes that trailed from its undercarriage, pulling it to earth. They hung on while two guests, like us, jumped four feet to the ground.

Underneath the barrage balloon, the cabin was a tiny structure, like a barnacle on a blue whale, or a pod on a ferris wheel. You took one shaky step up, and the whole thing swung. One seat in the back, and one in the front next to the pilot: a quiet, self-contained man in middle age with full flying garb, who smiled and handed us headphones to protect our ears from the sputter of a tiny, noisy engine.

Unable to talk to each other, we ascended – it felt like the balloon was rising on the heat of the earth. There was a prickle of adrenalin in my eyeballs, different, more urgent than mere excitement – different to something you might feel on a fairground ride. It occurred to me how little there was between us and the air: the cabin’s walls were fibreglass-thin, an ice-cream cart pedalling towards the atmosphere. You made the calculations silently: a hundred feet, three hundred, five – then a slick of brown river below, and the Dartford Crossing, with cars flying over the Queen Elizabeth II bridge.

It was here that the engine was turned off, and we hung in silence 1,500 feet high. There was so little turbulence that, for our sake and saying nothing, the pilot created some: he had two little wheels either side of his seat, and he rolled them back and forth, as if in some crazy, cosmic wheelchair, to rock the cabin from side to side. Sometimes I think I dreamed that bit, but it was true. As we motored back to earth, I saw the men running from the corners of the field below, to throw themselves at the landing ropes.

The balloon did a few days like this in Essex: then it moved to Germany, with the same pilot, Michael Nerandzic from New South Wales, who’d been flying it for 22 years.

A month after we took our ride, on a similar flight above Friedberg, the blimp’s little engine caught fire, filling the cabin with smoke.

Nerandzic, who’d texted his land crew to say his cargo was heavy that day, descended quickly – and the rope men ran across the field.

When he reached a height of 15 feet above the ground, with the engine burning, he told his three passengers to jump to safety. As they did so, the sudden weight change sent the balloon shooting upwards, before the men could take the ropes. The helium ignited, and the blimp exploded  in the sky. Nerandzic probably knew, when he told his passengers to jump, what would happen.

We saw the photos in the paper – the friendly balloon now vertical, burning and folding like a half-eaten sardine – orange and black, rather than yellow and blue. They suspended passenger flights and retired another blimp called Spirit of Safety II. I hadn’t imagined you could die a hero’s death in such a machine. I still remember the adrenalin I felt in my eyeballs. It’s one of life’s simplest lessons, I suppose. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably not. 

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This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran