Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Interview with Terry Dillard, Chief Pilot

Terry Dillard has been a pilot at Van Wagner Airship Group (formerly known as The Lightship Group) for over 20 years. He has spent over 13,000 hours in airships and flown over events including the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, NASCAR, Indy 500, the World Series and the Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996.

Dillard previously worked with clients including McDonald’s, Blockbuster, Sanyo, Saturn, DIRECTV, Budweiser, Horizon, BCBSNJ, Universal Pictures, Despicablimp and Conan O’Brien for TBS. 

So, tell me about the job. Is this a full-time job, or are you a pilot for other aircraft?

“The airship job is a full-time job for me. This is my 24th year in flying airships.” Terry explained that this particular contract is about the TV relationship and NESN. “I fly airships about ten-and-a-half months out of the year, then I take about a month-and-a-half off and get my batteries recharged and then get back out and do it again.”

How do people respond when you tell them what you do for a living? 

“Well, you know, it’s kind of a novelty thing, considering there are only about 54 people who do what I do. Flying the blimp is only about 6% of what I do. The other 94% is giving interviews.” Terry discussed how the blimp is really about community and about public relations. “It’s kind of in my blood, talking to people. It’s kind of hard to leave everything at the airport and go live a normal life.” He described getting off of the blimp in the evening and encountering crowds of people, usually with children, wanting to talk to him and see the blimp. He mentioned that even after an eight- or ten-hour day, he usually stays behind and talks to people while his crew heads back to the hotel. The blimp flies to other communities for events and exposure in addition to just covering Red Sox games, so the blimp might be at different airports in small communities where it really is a novelty to see it. “It’s all about the PR, and it’s all about connecting with the local people. It’s not every day that you get a blimp parked in your backyard. I enjoy that part of the job.”

Several readers are interested in knowing what you do if you have to go to the bathroom. Well?

“We take care of those needs prior to going up.” Red Sox games are about five hours -- one hour from the airport to Boston, about three hours in the air, then one hour back. The airship has two pilots available at any time, because one might not feel well or feel comfortable being in the air that long. “If you’re up at the field and you step in a gopher hole and twist your ankle, the show still has to go on.”

What type of weather conditions would require special precautions or a change of plans? Have you ever run into a really scary situation while piloting the blimp?

“Unfortunately the weather dictates our life. If the weather is good, we are a hero. We can do no wrong, we walk on water. If the weather is great, we can do our job. When the weather is bad, we can’t do our job. The general public really doesn’t understand weather. We have to be very careful with the airships. I’m preparing for the weather several days in advance. If there’s thunderstorm activity, we keep the airship on the ground. I have been humbled many, many times, and yes, I have been caught out there, and it’s been a very humbling experience, but no, I’ve never broken an airship. Every time I fly, the odds are against me. I go into work every day with a little side of caution. Mechanically, we very very rarely have issues. Weather is our biggest nemesis.”

So, I guess the most pertinent question of all from our readers: Do you secretly wish you were the blimp guy for the Yankees?

“(Laughs) No, no no no!” Terry described how when he flew the airship up into Boston, he had to cross in to New Jersey and New York, and recognized he was in somewhat unwelcome territory, and considered what the reaction might be if a Yankees blimp were to fly through the Boston area. As a Florida native, he appreciates the Boston area -- “It’s a really beautiful area, it’s very scenic, I like the accent, the history, the people are very friendly. The traffic is bad, but I don’t have any stoplights to worry about! I’m quite honored and proud to be the chief pilot with Hood, so my final answer will be that I’m happy with the Red Sox!”

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

“I’d like to make sure they know about the photo contest sweepstakes.” He described how he’s quite eager to take locals on a ride, and explained that the only way to get onto any of the airships is either as an employee or by winning a contest. He explained that people will approach the airship groups trying to purchase rides on blimps, but that the industry has thus far not opened this possibility. “You cannot buy a blimp ride. If you cannot buy it, what is it worth?”

Thank you to Terry and to Hood and their marketing team for making the interview possible!

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