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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007

News photo
An in-flight view ahead from the passenger cubicle slung beneath the massive, 75-meter-long Zeppelin NT

WEEK 3

BLIMPTIME BLUES

Up, up and away


Staff writer

Imagine an oblong balloon that's longer than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and has a small glass bowl of a passenger compartment dangling precariously from its underbelly. Despite the slogan "Fly with me" emblazoned along its length, the Zeppelin NT didn't look like the most reassuring vehicle in which to entrust your life thousands of feet above terra firma. But this was work.

News photo
News photo
The blimp approacheth (top); its captain at the controls (above); and the huge floating airship casts its long shadow over sleepy Saitama Prefecture rice paddies (below). RAJU THAKRAR PHOTOS
News photo

When I landed this airborne assignment, my editor was presumably (or not!) unaware of the severe vertigo that I experience. But how does a grown man admit that his knees tremble at the mere thought of being atop a ladder a couple of meters off the ground? Nope, I had my pride. I just gritted my teeth and feigned a cheesy grin.

And so, one gorgeous, sunny day last month, I trekked out to the green pastures of Okegawa in northern Saitama Prefecture for my maiden flight aboard the Zeppelin NT, courtesy of the JTB travel agency in west Japan, which is working with the Nippon Airship Corporation to offer 90-minute flights over Tokyo from Nov. 23 (¥126,000 by day; ¥168,000 by night).

When I arrived at Honda Airport, sited in a sea of rice paddies, I was expecting to see the blimp from the get-go. But no such luck, as I and the other journalists assembled for this adventure were immediately ushered into NAC's office, where a staffer told us what to expect on our 30-minute aerial jaunt. Reassuringly (or not!) he also said that just in case anything happened, the life-insurance payout would be ¥23 million. That really helped my vertigo.

Worse, though, was a brief spasm of paranoia that followed, when it crossed my fevered mind that we lowlife journalists were perhaps being used as guinea pigs to test if this huge windbag was really fit to fly. But then, as I was talking to one of the ground crew on the grassy field outside, I realized with a shudder that a white speck approaching from far off in the sky was indeed my floating nemesis — and that it was now almost time to take the plunge up into the great blue yonder.

Within minutes, though, my fears amazingly took a back seat as I gawped at the sheer enormity of this 75.1-meter-long, 19.7-meter-wide and 17.5-meter-high balloon that had come to rest before me like a great white whale powered by three 200hp engines, with its two petite propellers at the back and one either side seemingly glued there for comic effect.

And then (gulp) we were ushered on board one at a time as a rather portly chap among us worried aloud that he might not be allowed on. Not so, the ground crew assured him, saying there was no realistic weight limit.

At the door we were greeted by the blimp's attendant, Satoru Uchiyama, whose role mainly appeared to be to keep an eye on us so that we didn't do anything flight-threatening. He later told me that he had undergone an intensive training program to be qualified for his position.

The seating area for eight passengers and the attendant was surprisingly spacious, and I noticed with some relief that there was even a toilet at the back. But then, moments after we had strapped ourselves into our plush leather seats, the Zeppelin rose off the ground in a nonchalant, no-frills liftoff that took us all by surprise. Rising at a rate of 100 meters per minute to our flying altitude of 300 meters — half the blimp's maximum altitude — we were soon commanding marvelous panoramas in all directions, including the megasprawl of Saitama City with its million-plus inhabitants.

It was around then that the attendant told us we could take off our seat belts. If it had been up to me, I would have stayed planted firmly in my seat, but I felt I had little choice — in the name of journalism — but to take in whatever I could. To my great surprise, the cubicle almost didn't wobble at all as I moved around.

In fact, the main delightful dilemma I faced was the view. No doubt that airplanes offer great outlooks, but there is no way they can allow you to soak up the 360-degree sights I beheld from this rather stately "spaceship," and deciding where to gaze next in awe was for me fast becoming the greatest challenge. It seemed that my fellow passengers were as excited as me, because as we shuttled from one side to the other I could definitely detect our cocoon swaying ever so slightly.

That hint of vulnerability made me curious to find out how qualified the pilots were. Uchiyama explained that despite already possessing a license to fly a Zeppelin, both pilots had undergone a further year's training in Germany, where the blimp was made. That sufficed to calm my nerves for the moment.

However, the complete lack of shade soon made the heat unbearable, and I felt like a goldfish being simmered in a bowl. Uchiyama was the only person allowed to open the small window at the back, and when he did, a fierce gust of wind blew in, making my notebook fly out of my hand and messing up the women's hairstyles.

But then, just as we were getting used to flying at between 60 and 80 kph over downtown Saitama City, I could feel the entire ship come to a gradual halt. Had we stalled? Were we about to nosedive into oblivion? No.

"You are going to enjoy this," Uchiyama declared with a big grin on his face. It took less than a minute for us to come to a complete standstill.

It was a strangely peaceful feeling of hovering up in the heavens — a feat that is accomplished by angling the propellers on either side up, and the ones at the back down. But after a few minutes like that, I started to feel a bit disconcerted. What if we couldn't go down? What if somebody suddenly became seriously ill?

"Don't worry," Uchiyama said, "in emergencies the pilot can bring the Zeppelin NT down 300 meters in one minute."

Well and good, but he was not able to give me a good reason why the ship was equipped with life-jackets instead of parachutes. What would happen if a bird pierced the skin with its beak?

"The skin has layers of synthetic fiber so it can withstand that. In fact, you can't pierce it with a knife," Uchiyama said.

Yes, but what about sword-wielding sparrows, I wondered as the blimp executed a rather elegant 180-degree about-face and — yes, oh yes! — began to descend slowly and smoothly, its shadow growing ever bigger across the fields near the airport.

To my eternal relief, our descent turned out to be uneventful — if almost vertical. To an onlooker it must have looked like a soap bubble gently drifting to Earth — without the "pop," of course.



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