A dozen miles north of the TPC River Highlands golf course, the MetLife blimp's pilot, Charlie Smith, requests permission for his crew to pull the 128-foot-long airship to a grassy runway at Hartford-Brainard Airport.
"Snoopy One, proceed on course. Clear for takeoff," a voice in the control tower told Smith.
The Peanuts beagle, MetLife's longtime logo, is emblazoned with the company's name on the side of Snoopy One. It's one of two blimps that the nation's largest life insurer operates for aerial video during live broadcasts of the Travelers Championship this week, the PGA Tour, NFL games, college football and other events, for 50 weeks of the year.
Some of the 13 crew members grab ropes and pull the helium-filled blimp onto the runway. Smith revs the twin 80-horsepower motors that spin propellers on either side of a small gondola.
It's like a little commuter car with a giant balloon for a car-top accessory, roaring at a steep angle to the sky. The blimp ascends like a roller coaster — enough to make some people queasy, and even swaying slightly left and right.
"It's more like being on a boat in the sky," Smith said, contrasting the feeling with that of a hot air balloon.
"Sailing is kind of our nautical cousin," he said, explaining that the blimp can whip around even in light wind. "That is a ton of surface area for the wind to hit and it acts like a sail."
Above the Connecticut River, the blimp is steady. But as it putters over parking lots, concrete and asphalt, updrafts of hot air rock the airship side to side like a boat in stormy seas.
The gondola — where the pilot and as many as four people can cram inside — has thin, aluminum-framed walls with wraparound Plexiglas windows that slide up, allowing air to drift through.
Smith, 31, looks like he could be a golfer in town to play the Travelers Championship in his bright white polo shirt and pleated chinos. But the shiny, black dress shoes instead of spiked golf shoes give him away. He needs comfortable footwear to operate the two pedals that steer the blimp left and right. The pedals pull on cables connected to rudders — the movable part of vertical fins at the tail of the blimp.
The pilot's seat resembles a wheelchair. Wheels on either side of the seat are connected by an axle, and turning them pivots elevators on horizontal fins at the back of the blimp, controlling up and down movement.
Forward movement is controlled with a throttle that revs the gas-powered engines.
Between maneuvers, Smith takes moments to stand up and look beyond his pilot's dashboard. He is careful to keep the blimp's shadow away from a golfer's shot.
"They can hear us, but it's almost nonexistent," Smith said of the engines. "It's like a leaf blower a mile away."
Smith has flown above college football games at the University of Alabama, Louisiana State University and when Baylor University upset Kansas State 52-24 at home last November in Waco, Texas.
The blimp's top speed is 40 mph, though Smith generally travels at about 30 mph. It generally hovers at 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground to keep the company's name visible to people below, though it can go up to 10,000 feet.
A 70-gallon tank provides fuel for nine hours, generally allowing the blimp to travel 300 to 350 miles. Even if the gas were to run out, the helium would keep it afloat until Smith could drift down to an open field. And all that helium is kept in by a Kevlar reinforced envelope — the fabric that makes up the blimp.
"All together, it's thinner than a credit card," Smith said of the fabric.
He took an interest in aviation as a kid watching the Blue Angels and other aviation acrobats at the Sun 'n' Fun air show in his hometown of Lakeland, Fla.
"To fly, you have to get your own pilot's license and then get training through the company," Smith said.
It took four to five months to get a regular pilot's license, or 250 hours of flying, and then he had the tremendous luck that MetLife had an opening for a blimp pilot. He did the additional 200 hours of training to become familiar with the aircraft.
"It's all on the job," Smith said.
"There's a lot of people interested [in the job] and the hiring is sporadic," he said. "I was very, very lucky."