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Sam Farmer at the Super Bowl: taking Matt Millen for a (blimp) ride

January 27, 2009 |  7:40 pm

From left, Jack Shoemaker, Sam Farmer, Goodyear blimp pilot Corky Belanger and Matt Millen.

I’m at the helm of a $10-million, five-story, 198-foot airship.

And I’m utterly out of control.

The site of Super Bowl XLIII, Raymond James Stadium, is far below me and as small as the face of a wristwatch. It’s a moving target too, as I recklessly circle it.

“Push down with your left foot,” the Goodyear blimp pilot says calmly, directing me from just over my shoulder. “Push down hard.”

The blimp engines roar, making the 250-pound man beside me tense up even more. Here’s a former Pro Bowl linebacker, a guy who won four Super Bowls with San Francisco, Oakland and Washington, and he’s not looking too comfortable. He gives a nervous laugh, and, while hanging on to his vinyl seat with one hand, snaps shaky cellphone pictures of me with the other.

“You’re going to kill us, man,” Matt Millen says, sounding half-convinced of that.

His already wide eyes grow even wider as I give up the pilot’s seat after less than a minute at the controls, for a moment leaving it horrifyingly vacant.

Pilot Corky Belanger and I squeeze past each other to switch positions in the cramped cabin, allowing Millen and the third passenger, NBC production assistant John Shoemaker, to finally exhale.

As the city of Tampa bustled beneath us Tuesday, we saw the Super Bowl from an entirely different angle — 1,000 feet in the air. It’s a similar view to the one the blimp camera will offer Sunday, when the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers play for the Lombardi Trophy.

Sam FarmerIt’s a view Belanger knows well, as pilot of one of Goodyear’s three blimps, which are housed in Pompano Beach, Fla., Akron, Ohio, and Los Angeles.

When asked, Belanger tells people he sells tires. In a way, he does, operating one of America’s most recognizable advertising icons. It’s a fun job, and a rare one.

“There are more astronauts than blimp pilots,” says Belanger, 28, whose father is a retired blimp pilot.
All of us passengers are happy to hear we’re dealing with a second-generation expert, especially when we take a look at the mother of all dashboards in front of him.

“Could one of us land this if we absolutely had to?” I ask.

“No, probably not,” Belanger says.

That’s comforting.

“Well,” I say, “I hope you’ve had an echocardiogram.”

The three of us newbies probably could use one after our toe-tingling ascents and descents.

The blimp, which needs a crew of 20 workers to guide it with ropes when it’s on the ground, climbs so sharply that it feels as if we’re in the cockpit of the space shuttle. Even more dramatic are the 30-degree dives, when the nose tips down like the front car of a roller coaster, making us feel like we could splat like bugs against the inside of the windshield.

We’re not alone in the sky. We’re sharing the airspace with a couple of helicopters, some small planes that use the same tiny airport we took off from and another blimp that advertises DirecTV.
They all must have looked at us funny during my fleeting stint at the controls, when I did an unintentional doughnut before calling it a career.

Apparently, I broke a record.

“You’re the only guy I’ve ever seen who can sit in the seat for 20 seconds and do a 180,” Belanger says.
The other passengers are not impressed. Luckily, the conditions are ideal to regain control. There’s just a slight afternoon breeze. It was windier in the morning.

“You should have been up here earlier,” Belanger says. “It was, uh, festive.”

As for us, we prefer our Super Bowl festivities on the ground.

-- Sam Farmer

Photo (top): From left, Jack Shoemaker, Sam Farmer, Goodyear blimp pilot Corky Belanger and Matt Millen. Credit: Goodyear.

Photo: (inset) Sam Farmer, blimp pilot. Credit: Matt Millen