Published 12:00 am Friday, November 13, 2009

Ground crewman Clifford Sherman was taking his watch and preparing the DirecTV airship’s gondola for television equipment Friday morning before a scheduled test flight over Vaught-Hemingway Stadium prior to Saturday’s game. The airship is moored at the Panola County Airport where it is based for the next two weeks in route to SEC games in Oxford. Panolian photo by Rupert Howell

By Rupert Howell

Its very unusual for the DirecTV airship to be in the same town two weekends in a row according to Airship Captain Terry Dillard, but those who drive past Panola County Airport will notice the giant blimp or it’s tether next to the runway until after next weekend.

The airship and its crew currently represent DirecTV at Southeastern Conference football games. While one crew is flying over Oxford this weekend, their sister ship will be flying over Columbia, South Carolina keeping an eye on the Gamecocks. And the crew now headquartering at the local airport will be around for next weekend’s Ole Miss vs. LSU game after they finish with the Rebel’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers.

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The ship’s tether allows the 128 foot long structure to pivot 360 degrees or stand on its nose according to ground crewman Clifford Sherman who has been working for this particular airship company for the past three years.

Sherman explains that at least one member of the crew is on watch around the clock. On Friday he had just removed the co-pilot seat to make room for a console that would be used by the camera man. The camera man and the pilot are likely the only two aboard when an airship is seen above an event. The blimp was planning a 3 p.m. trip over Oxford Friday afternoon to insure that all was working well before Saturday’s ABC broadcast.

Dillard and his camera man sit in the “car” or gondola under the “envelope” or blimp. The pilot controls direction with a rudder. The airship is powered by two 80 horsepower engines. Helium fills the “envelope” while desired pressurization is maintained with an inner balloon or “ballone” that is inflated or deflated as needed.

And Sherman says it takes a minimum crew of nine to launch a land the ship. Four vehicles, three of them pulling trailers are parked near, chase behind the ship when it moves from airport to airport.

A website notes that the particular model airship cruises at 32 mph with a maximum speed of 55 with winds in favor. Sherman notes that the crew tries to set up before the airship arrives, otherwise it flys around in circles until the tether is properly installed.

A gyro-stabilized camera was to be mounted to the gondola early Friday afternoon before the practice run to Oxford and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Captain Dillard was planning to be back to Panola County in time to watch the South Panola Tigers play Northwest Rankin in the first round of the football playoffs.

Too bad DirecTV didn’t know this. They would probably encouraged him to take the airship.