DirecTV airship

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Airship records Tennessee getting whupped

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 its tether next to the runway, until after this weekend.

The airship and its crew currently represent DirecTV at Southeastern Conference football games. While one crew flew over Oxford last weekend and recorded Ole Miss’s record-setting victory over Tennessee, their sister ship was flying over Columbia, South Carolina keeping an eye on the Gamecocks. And the crew, now headquartering at Panola County Airport, will be around for next weekend’s Ole Miss vs. LSU game.

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The airship quietly manuvered high above the university during the traditional pre-game tailgate and later circled above Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in  a counter-clockwise direction, sending aerial views to the national network that beamed them around the world.

When the game was finally over, the airship headed in a westerly direction returning to its temporary mooring at the local airport, looking like a lone ship sailing into the sunset.

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 ensure that all equipment was working before Saturday’s television broadcast.

Captain 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 with air as needed.

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

Sherman explained that anytime one sees a blimp following an interstate route from location to location, you can rest assured that the ground crew is following close behind.

A Web site 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 flies around in circles until the tether is properly installed.

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

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

Too bad DirecTV didn’t know this. They would probably have encouraged him to bring his airship.