Cruising on Carnival's blimp offers new perspective on air travel

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The Carnival AirShip at a general aviation field in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
The Carnival AirShip at a general aviation field in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. -- If your idea of transportation is getting there fast -- a nonstop flight, an interstate freeway or the transporter on the Starship Enterprise -- then riding a blimp is probably not for you.

Blimp travel is the slowest way to move across the horizon, except perhaps by a hot air balloon, which lacks the small engines mounted beneath a blimp's envelope to power it through the air.

I had a chance to spend an hour motoring across the blue September skies of Florida on a blimp leased by Carnival Cruise Line, which is using the airship to float a giant #ChooseFun message over seven Southern states. 

If people noticed us above them, it was hard to tell. It is difficult to make out anyone waving to you at a cruising altitude of 1,000 feet. But the vantage point could not have been more pleasant. It was like the view you get from a jet just after takeoff but in slow motion, with way more time to pick out landmarks below.

The Carnival AirShip, as it is styled, was in South Florida to promote the arrival of the Carnival Horizon in Miami, its home for the winter season. The Horizon was launched earlier this year and had spent the summer sailing from New York.

The blimp cruises at a breathtaking 25 mph, so we lacked the time on our demonstration flight to go all the way down to Miami and back. Starting from a general aviation field in this suburb of Fort Lauderdale, our route took us east over Hollywood and out across the beach. From there, we turned south and took in the glinting, aquamarine Atlantic Ocean for a while before heading back to base.

The most electrifying part of the ride was the takeoff. It was a little like ascending in a helicopter and a little like rushing down the runway in a plane. The pilot gunned the engines to take to the skies, not to push air under the wings but merely to gain some altitude before we headed out over a residential area.

The blimp hovers over a Carnival ship during its seven-state tour.
The blimp hovers over a Carnival ship during its seven-state tour.

Once airborne, the roar of the engines was throttled back and the serenity began.

This blimp casts a shadow across the landscape, but not a big one. It is only 128 feet long, about half the size of the famous Goodyear blimp. Its passenger gondola seats four, including the pilot. The instrumentation is about as sophisticated as a Cessna's, and the twin 80-horsepower Rotax engines were originally developed to power personal watercraft and snowmobiles.

What this blimp does have going for it is the view. And what a view! There's about four feet of transparency between the sidewall of the gondola and the ceiling of the airship, affording 270-degree views of the sky, sea and terrain.

The residential landscape looked like a model train set, with miniature plastic houses, trees and swimming pools.

One or two of the windows were open, giving us a healthy, cooling breeze. The engine noise was largely behind us. There was a sense both of being in a cozy enclosure and being surrounded by a vast, airy panorama.

Part of the fun for me was seeing some familiar landmarks from a new perspective. Look, there's the Gulfstream Park racetrack. There's the 39-story Westin Diplomat hotel. Hollywood City Hall. That little beach motel where we spent Labor Day weekend one year.

Although bulky, the blimp proved to be a pretty smooth ride. After takeoff, we hit some thermal columns of rising air that caused the blimp to waddle a bit. But it was nothing like the jarring turbulence of a speeding jet at 35,000 feet.

Once over water, the thermals disappeared. And because there were no structures below, we could descend to 575 feet, only a little above the tops of the tallest condos lining the beach.

Blimps don't even attempt to fly in stormy weather. Pilot Steve Adams said that, luckily, the Carnival AirShip had only missed three flying days for weather since it began its tour 20 days earlier in Memphis.

As we turned back to base, there was a small challenge to the west: a bank of clouds dumping a load of rain, as often happens in Florida in September. The shower was yet another phenomenon that looked different from 1,000 feet than it does from the ground. It was just south of the airport, and Adams radioed the control tower to see if it was pushing any wind around nearby.

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