The pilot of a blimp now above N.J. says she has "the best job in the world." Her occupation leaves her floating on air

Posted: July 20, 2003

ATLANTIC CITY — Kate Board will have the best seat at Monday night's Bruce Springsteen concert.

She'll be so far above the Meadowlands that she won't be able to hear the songs, but the British-born Board won't mind a bit because she'll be high above in the cockpit of a 2,770-pound blimp.

The flyover will be one of nearly three dozen that the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey blimp will make this summer with Board at the helm.

This week, the huge white-and-blue airship will be in the sky over the Night in Venice Parade in Ocean City. Other appearances include the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in September.

Because there is nowhere else the 28-year-old Londoner would rather be than in the cockpit of a huge airship, it doesn't bother her to watch from afar.

"I personally might not be at the concert or a parade itself, but flying above it, I am able to feel it. This whole blimp vibrates with sound and energy whenever we are over something like that," said Board, who adds that she is one of only two female airship pilots in the world. Only 30 pilots are licensed to fly the 20 blimps in operation worldwide. More people are qualified to fly the space shuttle, according to NASA.

"It is the best job in the world," said Board as she floated the craft over the beaches of Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Ocean City last week. "I'm really most at home right here."

So the 9-by-5-foot cabin of the airship's gondola, where there is room for just three passengers besides the pilot, has become a home to Board. There is no bathroom.

It takes a ground crew of at least eight to launch and land a blimp. Because it is like a big balloon, the ground crew must act as the brakes by grabbing hold of ropes that hang off the front of the airship. Members of the ground crew monitor the blimp 24 hours a day, checking it hourly for leaks.

An airship needs no runway, just a huge open field where it can land and take off. Last week, it was using Bader Field in Atlantic City.

Like a hot-air balloon, the blimp uses up to 68,000 cubic feet of helium to generate lift. Like an airplane, it can take off and move forward using its own engines.

Drifting past places such as the Ocean City boardwalk, Board likes to cruise about 30 miles per hour, but the blimp can reach 55 m.p.h. and climb from ground to sky at 1,600 feet per minute.

It has an instrument panel about the size of one you might find in a small airplane, and radio contact with a nearby tower is maintained at all times.

But Board - who most often flies solo - says she relies more on the "feel" of the blimp. That feeling of being one with the aircraft is what led Board to flying airships rather than airplanes.

She was hooked on aeronautics as a career after her parents gave her a flying lesson as a 19th birthday present. Board jumped among training opportunities and jobs before landing one with Virgin Atlantic. Her big break came with the chance to work for the company's airship division.

After months of training, she worked her way up from ground crew to cockpit.

Virgin sold its airship division to an Orlando, Fla.-based company, the Lightship Group, which owns and leases 11 blimps.

Horizon's goal during the current 18-week blimp tour, which runs from June to October, is that the blimp be seen by every New Jersey resident, said William J. Marino, the company's president and chief executive.

The company would not disclose the cost of the advertising campaign using the blimp, but a spokesman said that the exposure would create up to 70 million "impressions" and that the campaign would be twice as cost-effective as traditional advertising.

Back in the air, the view from inside the blimp's gondola is magnificent.

From 800 to 1,000 feet up, near the ocean's edge, it is easy to make out landmarks of all types; major roadways, hotels, boardwalks, offices, amusement parks.

But it is high enough to see for miles in any direction - the marshes and bay creeks defining where the seashore ends and the mainland begins, the mist that hangs over the sea and cuts the horizon off into a deep blue meld of water and sky.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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