Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Stars & Stripes Fly Overhead; from Blimp, First Coast Looks Great

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Stars & Stripes Fly Overhead; from Blimp, First Coast Looks Great

Article excerpt

Byline: David DeCamp, Times-Union staff writer

Larry Chambers makes a living out of getting high. For 34 years, he's done it over and over, drifting and lighting up for more than 14,000 hours.

He did it again yesterday in Jacksonville, even though it always lands him on the ropes. Gawkers always stare at the sight of this floater.

Chambers, 57, pilots a Goodyear blimp, a helium-filled, polyester-and-rubber airship that carries the tiremaker's name and messages in lights.

No drugs required -- for him.

The Stars & Stripes blimp came to Jacksonville on Thursday as part of a promotional tour that runs until tomorrow, offering free rides to media, corporate customers and sales associates and their guests. The Pompano Beach-based ship will not circle today's Jaguars game, but will come for the team's Nov. 30 football game against Tampa Bay.

This blimp, like two other Goodyear ships, is a sensitive object despite being 192 feet long and 60 feet tall. Trips are invitation only. It is guarded 24 hours a day. After the Sept. 11 attacks, You must have a photo identification to ride.

Secret handshakes are required. (Just kidding.)

Each of the ships flies about 125 days a year. They can go up to 1,000 miles before the relatively small engines use all the fuel. At night, all they need is a mooring post, and they rest like a giant windsock. Although the Stars & Stripes had to be rebuilt after a 2000 crash, Chambers said a blimp is the safest way to go.

Chambers, a commercial pilot, started in his native California as a blimp maintenance man. He moved up to pilot. He is a confident man, and chatters about floating and easing around the city with nothing strange ever happening.

From 1,000 feet up, going 35 miles per hour, with no seat belts.

"Thermals taking the tail up," Chambers said matter-of-factly at one point, as the nose of the blimp dipped and the passengers' eyes bulged at the menacing St. …

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