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The Great Pink Floyd Airship Mystery Print E-mail

(This article originally appeared in Brain Damage Magazine issue 36)

This is a sprawling tale of the colossal Pink Floyd Airship, two pivotal people, the most unique of collectibles and a multi-dimensional adventure. It goes without saying this article is quite a departure for Brain Damage but I hope you discover something captivating or enjoyable in it. As gratifying as it was to finish this, the ultimate satisfaction would have been to see the expressions of BD's editor while reading the whole document, prior to publication in the magazine! The question is - are we pushing Brain Damage into brave new frontiers or just pumping it full of helium?

PINK FLOYD ALOFT!

The masses who viewed the Pink Floyd Airship in flight often had a common reaction - a double-take and a gasp. Across the strata of North America the Pink Floyd Airship became legend with every appearance as it flew well ahead of each scheduled concert. Any presumptions to use the airship as a show prop were dashed in the end, except for the Miami tour opener and later in Boston, the Pink Floyd Airship remained a curious enigma. However, as a promotional tool for The Division Bell album and for the subsequent tour, the infamous airship seems to have worked. One ideal use was to ferry the media over stadiums to view the colossal stage (probably a good idea since they were not permitted to visit on foot). A commercial use for the airship was exposure in an ad campaign for Labatt's Ice beer on Canadian television. (Perhaps because CPI, head promoter for the tour, is owned by Labatt's Beer?) It was also featured extensively in the Columbia Electronic Press Kit/Promo Spots Video for the Division Bell promotional tour.

The Electronic Press Kit is a video issued to the press containing interviews with all the guys plus the production and design team, also a brief clip of the Pink Floyd Airship. It is the Columbia Promo Spots video which contain the quantity of airship footage and the following prepared message: A spokesperson for Pink Floyd has issued the following statement: "You have spotted the Pink Floyd Airship. Do not be alarmed. Pink Floyd have sent their airship to North America to deliver a message. The Pink Floyd Airship is headed towards a destination where all will be explained upon arrival. Pink Floyd will communicate." The video also contains an interview with one of the pilots and breathtaking footage of the airship in motion. Additional clips are Pink Floyd logos and DSOT video clips. Each video is Promo only and 14 minutes long, dated 2/94 for the Columbia Promos Spots video and 3/94 for the Electronic Press Kit video.

Not just another inflatable, the Pink Floyd Airship re-affirmed the band's street cred, retaining an indelible power second only to nature. Add to this a $103.5 million dollar tour gross and the multi-platinum selling album The Division Bell. Unquestionably 1994 had tangible rewards any number-crunching accountant would recognize.

The Airship International facility is just inside the scenic coastline of North Carolina in the small town of Weeksville. Eight miles North is Elizabeth City, the area's major population center and economic power. Dominating the area's culture is the Albermarle Sound, the wide channel of water that extends the coastline some 50 miles inland. This vast body of water turns the coastal communities into a sprawling marine harbour. The surrounding area is rich with tradition and legend, shipwrecks and pirate lore are finely woven into the region's culture. Between the Atlantic Ocean and the coastline are the Outer Banks, a narrow offshore barrier of shifting sand islands. These treacherous shoals have long troubled seafarers claiming over 2000 vessels and hundreds of lives. Two legendary points define the Outer Banks, one is Kitty Hawk, the historical site of the first airplane flight. Further down the coastline is Roanoke Island, where the first English colonists sent by Sir Walter Raleigh unsuccessfully attempted to settle in 1585. By the time supply ships arrived in 1590, the colony had vanished leaving only cryptic tree markings and the legend of "The Lost Colony."

Airship International Ltd. is an American airship company with its operational headquarters located in Orlando, Florida. It is a public company trading in the Over-the-Counter NASDAQ under the symbol "BLMP". Founded in 1982 by Chairman and President Louis J. Pearlman, Airship International Ltd. owns and operates airships, commonly known as blimps, for the aerial advertising and promotional purposes of Fortune 500 companies. Airship International's biggest airships are insured with Lloyd's of London for $6.7 million each replacement cost. Leasing one will cost you $300,000 to $400,000 a month for one of these floating billboards. The helium alone costs $40,000 to inflate the largest airships, luckily it is a one-time expense.

The company uses computer-aided-design (CAD) techniques to construct each airship in virtual reality, then follow through with acquiring the necessary parts from worldwide sources. The hanger in North Carolina dates back to World War Two when it served as a military airship base. As you arrive in the area you will see the coast guard air station. Further on, two enormous hangers tower five or six stories above the trees. Each structure is long and rounded with an organic and weathered appearance. You can ride right through the old guard gate in front without being stopped as there is no guard. Being an old facility, the passage of time has cracked the tarmac allowing overgrown weeds to spring up.

The lush landing field is immense, opening up into the blue sky framed by scattered trees. Nighttime casts a foreboding atmosphere to the exterior, inviting ghosts from the golden age of Zeppelins to inhabit the facility, perhaps taking one of the airships for a spin before dawn. Inside the Airship International hanger, wooden arches create a formidable shell around a colossal interior. Large floodlights bathe the interior giving the rustic surroundings a surrealistic atmosphere, but still plenty spooky. With just a few street lights framing the office area, you get the creepy impression this place would scare you to death at night. In the hangar there exists enough room to store over three airships, four or five weather balloons and have plenty of room left. Some of the employees even use bicycles to get around efficiently. Activity in and around the facility evolves daily, the development, assembly and ultimately test flying airships over the surrounding area has turned the curious population into airship experts.

Life with Pink Floyd began when graphic artist Burt Dodge flew to the hanger to paint the airship. Burt Dodge is the premiere airship painter in the country, and had the enviable task of painting the fabric with vibrant and psychedelic hues. The envelope of the airship is used to display an exact reproduction of the client's logo, lettering design and artwork. The previous client's graphics were more conservative yet colourful - greeting him on the blimp fabric was the smiling beagle Snoopy, the animated Peanuts canine being used for Metropolitan Life Insurance commercials.

It normally takes months to paint an airship and prep it for a new client. The Pink Floyd Airship was painted in less than 30 days by a crew working 18 hours each day made to follow a paint by numbers pattern drawn by Burt Dodge. Crews painted the airship inside the enormous hanger armed with hand-brushes (!) utilizing six cherry-picker lifts for mobility. When the paint crew wrapped up and stood back to view their accomplishment, Snoopy had vanished underneath multi-coloured aquatic themes and the Pink Floyd corporation logo. As the airship began its tour in January, the band had yet to decide a name for the album. By March, The Division Bell title was final and the craft returned home from the West coast to North Carolina where the name was painted on the sides above the fins and the airship sent back out again. The Pink Floyd Airship Tour began as it left North Carolina on January 10 until its final return home on May 27, 1994. The travel log for the airship took it from the East to West coasts, to the Gulf coast and a jaunt to Toronto, Canada.

The first stop on the tour was a sojourn near The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Encompassed by the media, the Pink Floyd public relations posse launched an elegant press conference where tour details were announced. The Pink Floyd Airship trip from North Carolina to California was historic and remarkable as the airship went up against the prevailing jet stream in the dead of Winter.

YEARNING TO FLY

Piloting the Pink Floyd Airship across North America was veteran pilot Hunter Harris. When I asked Mr. Harris to describe the sensation of airship flight, he reminisced for a moment and warmly recalled "It is the closest thing you could ever imagine to a magic carpet ride." Just talking to Hunter for a few minutes you will know he is a dynamic and intelligent person, but the one thing that comes through the strongest is his passion for aviation. Hunter started his flying career in 1974 with airplanes and has become a certified commercial pilot in every category. Now known as a contract pilot, Hunter's aviation career has logged flying time in single and multi-engine commercial aircraft, a variety of helicopters, even gliders and seaplanes. His first experience piloting airships was in 1986, logging time in airships for McDonald's, Seaworld, Budweiser, Met Life, Pink Floyd, and most recently the Gulf Oil Airship. Unfortunately the Gulf Oil Airship is now out of commission when it lost helium pressure in the air forcing it to make an emergency landing on a city street. Forget those images of a blimp sinking quickly to the ground in a heap. Punctures or tears cause a very slow leak of helium and the craft will eventually float to the ground.

No such problems with the Pink Floyd Airship. Mr. Harris says the craft was his favourite one having spent a couple of years in it (as Met Life and Pink Floyd) and without doubt was the nicest one. "Dependable, performed well and had a good history," recalls Hunter.

Nick Mason piloted the airship on March 30 in Miami leaving Dave Gilmour and Polly Samson to take turns piloting the craft on March 31. When I asked Mr. Harris his impressions of Nick and Dave's time behind the controls he recalled, "Without a doubt, both are professional pilots as far as their abilities go and they got a kick out of flying the blimp, like any pilot gets flying something different." The brief convergence of flying with the guys is an opportunity Hunter looks forward to again, if only to compare experiences.

The group will have plenty to discuss - Dave has a collection of WW2 fighters and Nick flies a helicopter and open-cockpit biplanes. The latter aircraft, affectionately known as 'Barnstormers', is of particular interest to Hunter citing his off-hours passion for flying vintage aircraft. Flying around the country in the Pink Floyd Airship provided him with experiences unique to airship travel. One occurrence Hunter vividly remembers during the Pink Floyd Airship Tour when flying over Lake Erie outside Buffalo and seeing ice floating as large as the airship. The slow-motion panoramic views from the airship are remarkable at night. "The clear weather view is indescribable" he remarked, "especially over metro areas like Manhattan, Chicago and Los Angeles." Cruising at 35 miles per hour also has an added benefit, Hunter explains "Bugs hitting the windscreen were not a problem. In fact, airships move so slowly, migrating ducks often flew past, peered back and laughed!"

Landing or lift-off could not be facilitated without a minimum 13-man ground crew to stabilize the airship. During landing, the ground crew broke into two main groups. One group of eight men scrambled into a V formation, then each left and right line of four men grabbed one of the two nose lines hanging from the airship. The other group of four men split in half to grip the railing that runs along the gondola. The coordinator for the entire operation is the crew chief, instructing the ground crew and staying in communication with the pilot. From a vantage point in front of the airship, he used hand signals to relay vital instructions to the ground crew and a two-way radio to communicate with the pilot.

Nighttime landings were readily carried out with the crew using red and white hand lights. Once on the ground, the number of additional personnel increased to anchor the airship to a mast truck and to perform routine maintenance. Traveling at all times with the airship was a highly trained team of mechanics, riggers, technicians and crewman who maintained the flight schedule and coordinated all flight activities. At their disposal was a fleet of specially equipped ground support vehicles which were used in the operation and maintenance of the airship.

With the airship secured to a 32,000-pound mast truck with a 30-foot-long pole, mobilizing the craft into position for another lift-off was easy. Tethered at the nose via the mast, the airship in effect became a gigantic wind sock. Twin Porsche 930 engines running on 100% octane aviation gas powered the airship, while the propeller housings rotated to assist take-off, landing and hovering. Combined, the two engines produced 510 horsepower propelling the airship along at a maximum 62 miles per hour, however the average cruising speed was a blinding 35 miles per hour at an altitude of 1000 to 3000 feet. The average flying distance logged for this airship was 300 miles a day, but actual airborne distances greatly depend on many factors relative to your destination. A meteorological variable such as wind constantly change into prevailing winds, cross-winds, tail-winds, down-bursts and rising thermals. Nothing is taken for granted in airship travel. The routine feeding of the Captain and co-Pilot also limited travel time, keeping in mind airborne pizza delivery is not yet perfected.

Experiencing an airship lift-off is truly a majestic event. With the twin vectored fans providing a howling downward thrust, the colossal craft lifts into the blue. The laws of nature seem corrupted by this spectacle as airships can climb out at a fantastic angle, leveling off at a few hundred feet to cruise aimlessly over terra firma. Hunter Harris explained, "We don't stick to a strict flight plan, but the first priority is maintaining a safe distance from any object, vessel, or even migratory birds." To the casual observer, airship maneuvers may seem effortless but that is not the case. Hunter stresses "the airship is the most difficult craft to fly correctly as there are a number of variables occurring at the same time you have to consider." Parameters such as wind speed and it's direction, presence of precipitation, and overcast or sunny skies are conditions considerably more important to an airship than other aircraft.

The Pink Floyd Airship was truly a multi-national craft. While assembled in the United States, the envelope was manufactured by a French company, the gondola and fins were made of a composite material in England, and the twin Porsche powerplants hail from Germany. Manufactured in the United States were the cockpit's avionics containing state of the art radio and navigational instrumentation. Technically the Pink Floyd Airship is a Skyship-600 (SKS-600) which requires two pilots to operate and is certified to accommodate twelve passengers. The Skyship is the most technically advanced in the world, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for day and night passenger flight. To light up the night skies, Airship International Ltd. has developed the NightSign system - the world's largest full colour aerial display, which is comprised of two computerized electronic display boards mounted on each side of the airship. In the case of the Pink Floyd Airship, under the cloak of darkness you could read PINK FLOYD from over a mile away, yielding a sensation wherever it flew.

A FOSSILIZED MACHINE

Physical specifications of the Pink Floyd Airship were impressive: 194 feet long, 67 feet high and 63 feet wide, filled with 235,400 cubic feet of non-flammable Helium. Without the helium the ship weighs 13,500 pounds. The fact that helium does not burn makes it much safer than hydrogen. It is also non-toxic, inert, colourless and the second lightest gas with 92.6% of the lifting power of hydrogen. The very nature of helium makes it lighter than air, thus giving it ample lifting power when contained in quantity.

As mentioned above, a variable such as sunlight affects the performance of the airship. Warm helium expands and generates greater lifting power, while cool helium reverses the equilibrium causing its molecular structure to contract. The variation of temperature has to be equalized depending on the airship's altitude and solar heating. Inside the envelope, two ballonets in forward and aft positions, expand and contract to compensate for changes in helium pressure. However an earthbound airship situated horizontally against the direct radiation of the sun also excites the molecules of helium. Sometimes the degree of superheating is so great, the ground crew has to add lead-shot ballast to stabilize the hyperactive craft.

Commercial airships like the Goodyear, Met Life and the Pink Floyd Airships have proved highly successful as multi-dimensional promotional campaigns. The year 1994 is by far the heaviest year for blimp ad traffic ever in the United States with over ten airships wafting around the country. It should be noted, while the Pink Floyd Airship was huge, it would look quite diminutive in proportion to one of the classic dirigibles. If there is any common thread, it is the spirit of adventure with the assurance of safety. Put any ground-dwelling mortal in one of today's airships and the experience is captivating. Just watching one of these majestic crafts lift off and take flight is awe-inspiring and intoxicating, occupying the same mythic heroism as Space Shuttles and Apollo Missions.

A PSYCHEDELIC BOUNTY

This is where our story deflates. Upon arriving home on May 27 in North Carolina, the crew tethered the retired airship outside. Soon it could be re-assigned or sold to another client. Fate however had other plans in mind for the Pink Floyd Airship. On June 27 a severe storm whipped up the Carolina coast and sheared the airship from her mooring lines. The fragile craft was no match for Mother Nature's howling gales, leaving the airship's psychedelic fabric in shreds. Why leave the famous blimp outside in the elements? Storage inside a hanger is possible, but airships are quite durable and spend most, if not all their active lives outside in the elements. This particular one had an excellent track record with the envelope being around two to three years old. The life spans of most envelopes are around five years before flying fatigue, Ultra-Violet deterioration and too many layers of paint retire them.

As the freak storm raged, the employees watched helplessly as the storm ripped apart their famous airship. When the skies cleared for a closer look, the poor blimp resembled an injured animal, but instead of oozing blood the inanimate object lost colourless helium. Intact and serviceable, the airship would have been up for lease after the tour for $250,000, complete with the main ground trucks. After the insurance company settled up with Airship International, the company salvaged the engines and the gondola, which left the envelope. The envelope fabric, a voluminous heap of psychedelic polyurethane, coated polyester fibre headed for the garbage pile. Pink Floyd's heritage held an uncertain fate.

Enter Matt and Jeff Dean of Wilmington, North Carolina, two brothers on a mission brimming with improbable coincidence and capitalistic insight. Not wasting a moment, Matt visits the hanger and discovers the fabric is about to be hauled away. Inspired, he quickly followed his instincts offering to take all the torn fabric off their hands for nothing. We all must do our part for the environment and recycle right?! After spending the Fourth of July weekend hauling the remains back to Wilmington, the brothers found themselves with enormous swaths of colorful fabric and the task of cataloging and photographing their bounty. Enter several friends, some beer and a normally quiet neighbourhood. Next door was an empty field and surrounding the area was a golf course (naturally being a Holiday the course was busy with golfers). After stretching out seven thousand feet of colourful fabric, several senior golfers got up the nerve to come over for a closer look. "Watcha doing boys, putting up a tent?" one asks. "No we're stretching out a blimp, a Pink Floyd blimp," Matt replies. This puzzled the golfers, who left scratching their heads, muttering something about The Hindenburg.

Now many months later, the brothers have formed a company, The Divisive Marketing Corporation to handle the sales and distribution of the product. Christened The Limited Edition Airship Division Bell Collectible, the product falls somewhere between framed classic poster and a gold record award. In January, I asked Matt Dean why the time delay from fabric acquisition to final product? His response was classic business strategy, "We had to get our ducks in a row before we moved." At this time he was waiting on brochures from the printer and adding names to a growing computer database.

Activity was all systems go when February rolled around. The first shipment of 500 finished units have arrived and the absence of broken glass was a good sign. A string of ads in Rolling Stone brought a brisk buzz of calls from around the country and his company began shipping orders.

Speaking to Matt this April after the Brain Damage ad ran, I asked him how business was going, "The orders are streaming in and the reaction from fans have been very positive," he remarks. No doubt the enthusiasm will build. Pink Floyd fans have always proved to be loyal and very discriminating customers. With its superior quality and originality, The Limited Edition Airship Collectible is one product that demands attention.

So what do you get for your $69.95 plus shipping? The product is comprised of a 15x12 inch black hardwood frame about three quarters of an inch thick. Behind the glass is a four inch square of airship fabric, a colour photo of the intact airship, a brass engraved nameplate and a document commemorating the band, tour and airship. Each item is set in a grey mat trimmed in black giving the layout a balanced and cohesive appearance. You also get a numbered certificate of authenticity, the document sheet in the frame is also hand-numbered. The overall effect of this entire product is classy without being trendy like so many collectibles. This is one of those items that will endure, you may choose to move from wall to wall, or perhaps from dwelling to dwelling, over a lifetime. Let's put it this way, there is nothing else like it on the market. As Matt said "This is a little piece of the experience." The first production of 500 units are hand-numbered, and as with most collectors items, the first series are the most desirable. Not to worry, the next 1000 of the consecutive series are ready to ship, also hand-numbered and just as beautiful. Until interest wanes the Pink Floyd Airship will continue to move, inspire and grow in legend. It just boggles the mind to contemplate this thought: How are Pink Floyd going to top this?

Paul Powell Jr. extends his warmest thanks to Captain Hunter Harris for his multi-dimensional aviation knowledge and the brilliant photos he supplied, Mr. Matt Dean for his guidance, insight and product information, and Barbara Paquette for her computer database research. Additional information from The Airship International Ltd. Press Kit.

 
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