My buddies and I want to be blimp pilots. What do we do?

March 27, 2009

Dear Cecil:

My buddies and I have been considering (while drinking) the idea of becoming "airship pilots." I put this in quotation marks because we cannot find any information on how this (possibly fictitious) profession could be pursued. We have looked into both purchasing an airship and gaining the credentials to pilot one. We cannot find any information beyond stuff about owning amateur hot air balloons. We are frustrated (and possibly drunk) and desperately need to know a few things only you can answer. First, how do you obtain pilot status for an airship? And second, how can we buy our own airship, zeppelin, or dirigible?

Cecil replies:

Fictitious? What makes you think airship piloting is fictitious? You think those are monkeys flying the Goodyear blimp? In fact an entire federal department, the Federal Aviation Administration, is charged with making sure airships and other airborne craft are operated by qualified personnel, as opposed to, no offense, a bunch of drunks. If you still want to do this once you sober up, here's how.

For technical consultation I turned to a longtime Straight Dope reader and private pilot who calls herself Broomstick. She pointed out that according to federal regulations you don't need a pilot's license to build or fly an aircraft that (a) is made for one occupant, (b) carries no more than five gallons of fuel, (c) can't go faster than 55 knots in level flight, and (d) has an empty weight of 254 pounds or less. There are a few other restrictions: day operation only, no flights over congested areas or crowds, etc. You don't even need flying lessons, although I'd advise against going aloft with no clue at all.

Without too much prep work, therefore, you could maybe get away with flying a Larry Walters-style lawn-chair-and-weather-balloons rig out in the middle of nowhere. (Southern Los Angeles, in case you're thinking about re-creating Larry’s flight path, doesn't qualify as the middle of nowhere.) But that's probably dinkier than what you had in mind.

So we escalate. To pilot a real airship you're going to need some certification, such as a sport pilot license with a "lighter-than-air category rating with an airship class rating." In addition to basic pilot training (i.e., in flying a plane), this requires about 20 hours of airship flight training, with 3 hours as pilot in command. It's technically possible to get a sport pilot license for airships only, but good luck finding an airship instructor willing to take on someone with no pilot certification and most likely no flight experience. However you swing it, the license lets you fly during the day with one passenger aboard.

Alternatively you could get a private pilot license for airships, which is similar to the sport pilot license but requires more training and skills. You'd need to fulfill the same basic requirements as pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, which include medical certification.

But maybe you won't be happy with anything short of flying the 192-foot Goodyear blimp. Now you need a commercial pilot certificate, and that's going to be a project. I won't list all the necessary qualifications, but you're looking at 200 hours of total flight time, including 30 as pilot in command, 40 of instrument flight time, and 5 of night visual flight time. Again, it's possible to start with no flying experience and work your way up to hovering over football stadiums strictly by flying airships, but it's unlikely. For one thing, there aren't a lot of schools that teach commercial airship flying, and those outfits that do are free to set high standards for applicants. Goodyear, which runs its own program, says it's only interested in licensed fixed-wing pilots with commercial instrument and multi-engine ratings. I'll wager this isn't what you wanted to hear, but Broomstick thinks the easiest route to airship captaincy is getting a fixed-wing pilot's license, then adding airship certification later.

Now: getting hold of an airship to fly. We tried calling Goodyear about blimp rental, but they repeatedly blew us off — too many yo-yos drunk-dialing at 2 AM, probably. However, we found a place called Airship Ventures near San Francisco that will rent you an honest-to-Jesus 246-foot-long Zeppelin NT for $5,750 per hour including crew. If you want to do a little piloting, they offer a day-long program that includes ground school and some stick time starting at $3,500 — but you need your private pilot's license first. Full-on pilot certification for the NT (includes extensive training plus trips to Germany for simulator work and such) will cost about $100,000 in fees and expenses. Finally, to buy your own Zeppelin-brand zeppelin and associated ground systems, figure you'll be out about €12 million, or roughly $15 million. OK, maybe you could get one for a tad less in this economy, but face it, kids — with that money you could buy a lot of beer.

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References

FAA Commercial Pilot requirements: Aeronautics and Space, 14 C.F.R. § 61.129 (2009).

FAA Private Pilot Regulations: Aeronautics and Space, 14 C.F.R. § 61.109 (2009).

FAA Sport Pilot Regulations in general: Aeronautics and Space, 14 C.F.R. § 61.301 (2009).

Personal communication with Airship Ventures.

Ultralights: Aeronautics and Space, 14 C.F.R. § 103.7 (2009).

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