Flying The Pink Floyd Blimp

posted by Carter Alan -

The pilot got up from his chair and barked with a smile, “Everybody sit down and fasten your seat belts!” That was a surprise.  Didn’t a blimp just float up and into the air?  Why was there a need to belt in?  As soon as everyone complied, the ground crew cast off the lines and we did, indeed, float upwards for a few moments, but then the engines on either side of the gondola accelerated to a whine and the airship pitched up like a steeply-climbing fighter jet!

The blimp clawed for altitude and soon we’d reached a thousand feet with the flat terrain of Massachusetts visible all around us under a cloudless blue sky.  In fact, looking excitedly out of various windows, I could not only see Boston, but Providence and Hartford as well!     

We were aboard the Pink Floyd airship “The Division Bell,” which was following the band around America on its current world tour.  Named after the album released at the end of March, the blimp was an inspired promotional idea that took contest winners and radio station personnel on short jaunts in every city Pink Floyd was visiting.  Painted up in many colors with the double ‘Tiki Gods’ faces from the cover of the latest album dominating the sides, the craft was a veritable flying billboard.  

“The Division Bell” album got to #1 in America on April 23, 1994, receiving airplay for songs like “Keep Talking” and “Take it Back.”  Less than a month later, the David Gilmour-led version of the band reached New England for three sold-out shows at Foxboro Stadium on May 18, 19, and 20.  Nobody knew it at the time, but this would be the last visit Pink Floyd ever made to America.

“The Division Bell” airship had been grounded for three days due to stormy weather. In fact, repairs had to be made to one propeller shaft after it was damaged on the flight north to New England in wildly  windy conditions.  The pelting rain and temperatures in the low 40’s had made the first two Pink Floyd shows in the stadium challenging for the audiences, but the sound from the group’s quadrophonic system had tamed the awful acoustics of the place while the visual show dazzled with green lasers dancing playfully along the bottom of the gray clouds hanging overhead. 

On the morning of the final show, the sun blazed on the horizon and four of us got the word to head to Mansfield for a berth on the airship as it flew from Mansfield to Foxboro Stadium 9 miles to the northeast.  After the dramatic takeoff, the seatbelt sign went off and I walked forward to the cockpit where Hunter, the pilot, invited me to sit in the co-pilot’s chair.  After I told him of my private pilot experience, he let me take over.

Even though the “The Division Bell” had two roaring engines, flying the craft was more like sailing than powering through the air like an airplane.  The nose bobbed up and down, left to right while the entire craft yawed and rolled in the wind.  Constant attention had to be paid to the nose so the winds didn’t jar us too far off course.  I noticed with amusement that one could turn the wheel entirely around.  Good thing it wasn’t designed like an airplane, or we’d be in a barrel roll and I’d have already lost lunch!    

“Hunter, if this was a Three Stooges” episode, the wheel would pop right out now!” I observed.  “Let’s hope not,” he replied with a grin before taking over as the blimp arrived over the 60,000 seat home of the New England Patriots.  It wasn’t that my piloting skills were all that bad, but holding the airship in a hovering position in the steady winds was trickier than it looked.

As Hunter gave the early arrivals in the parking lots a good look at “The Division Bell,” I wished I’d brought along a load of T-shirts to drop down to all the people waving up to us from below.  This would be a good place for Les Nessman launch his WKRP promotional turkeys, I thought, although I think my T-shirts would have fared much better than those hapless birds.  Time to go, we turned and with wind behind us, raced back to base, using Route 495 as a marker to take us right to Mansfield.  It appeared as if the whole town turned out at the airport to watch “The Division Bell” come in for its landing, because who ever got to see something like this? 

As far as I know, there were no other bands to ever take a blimp along on its tour (about the closest was the Rolling Stones, who announced a tour in 2002 aboard one of the gasbags), so Pink Floyd again went to places no other band could reach.  Once touted as the first band in space, they were also the first (and last?) to ride the air!         

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