Dropping In--Rising Out : Aviation: The delights of a dirigible draw many fans to Camarillo Airport. Some neighbors wish it would stay.


Jim O'Neill did what anyone would do when a 7 1/2-ton, 200-foot-long sausage is about to land on him.

He ducked.

As airports administrator for Ventura County, O'Neill braced for the worst when the 60-foot-tall blimp dropped in to take up residence at Camarillo Airport six weeks ago.

Much of O'Neill's job since the county took over the former Air Force base 15 years ago has been to try to get pilots to keep a low profile at the airport, whose neighbors include some of the county's wealthiest homeowners.

That hasn't been easy, as increasing numbers of noisy private planes and corporate jets owned by Fortune 500 companies have discovered the airport's convenience.

So the thought of having a fat dirigible hanging over the Camarillo runway, drawing attention to the 200,000 takeoffs and landings that occur there annually, left him with a sinking feeling.

"I was a bit apprehensive," O'Neill said. "Our community is very quick to make a judgment. I decided to wait and see what happened."

It turns out that the Fuji blimp that sailed into the county last month as part of a national tour glided right into the hearts of most Camarillo residents.

As the 21 crew members who operate the 1-year-old, $5-million lighter-than-air craft make plans to lift off today from Camarillo Airport for the last time, some homeowners are wishing they would stay.

"It's been great having it here," Camarillo resident Diane Ronneberg said as she watched the airship nose in for a landing. Ronneberg has lived in Camarillo for 20 years. She said she remembers the days--and nights--when fighter jets regularly roared in and out of what was then called Oxnard Air Force Base.

She also remembers the uproar that talk of regularly scheduled commercial air service in and out of the airport has caused among her neighbors.

"People out here basically want to see the airport stay small," Ronneberg said. "I don't think I want to see large airplanes going in and out of here."

But a big blimp is something else.

"We enjoy it. I think most people find it fascinating," said Dan Seiders, an electronics student who lives within sight of the airport. "The kids get excited when they see the blimp."

Like hundreds of other Camarillo residents, Seiders drove to the airport to take a close-up look at the dirigible. Crew members let son Michael, 4, and daughter Jennifer, 6, walk close enough to touch it.

"If there was a choice here between jets and blimps, I'd go for blimps," Seiders said.

Joe Haga, manager of a company that farms the Oxnard Plain south of Camarillo, hurried from a celery field with his 4-year-old son, Ben, to watch the 16-member ground crew struggle to tie the blimp down after an afternoon flight.

"Technology-wise, I guess it's a step backward," said Haga, of Ventura. "But a blimp is something that people don't find offensive."

Airports chief O'Neill said the blimp will be welcome at Camarillo Airport any time its tour brings it back to the West Coast. Camarillo City Manager Bill Little agreed.

"It's certainly a noticeable size. But it's probably as quiet as you can get and still have an engine in it," he said.

Little said his office gets frequent complaints about low-flying aircraft from the airport. "I've certainly not gotten any complaints about the blimp."

Mary Lou White, a personnel analyst for the city, said blimp operators agreed to take an ailing 5-year-old Moorpark boy for a flight after he contacted the Tri-Counties Make-A-Wish Foundation with his request.

Leukemia victim Magic Mendez's other wishes were to see his grandparents in New York and to have a radio-controlled car. The foundation, which assists terminally ill children, filled both of those requests too, said White, a director of the group.

Some of the more persistent Camarillo residents who visited the 600-foot-wide blimp's landing site on the southern edge of the airport were rewarded with short flights during its six-week visit.

Roy Jacobson, a retiree from Silver Bay, Minn., who is visiting daughter Lyn Bartyn of Camarillo, went to the airport 12 days in a row before an empty space materialized in the eight-seat blimp cabin.

"It's a nice addition to Camarillo, just fantastic," Jacobson grinned after a short hop over Port Hueneme and Ventura.

Pushed along by a pair of fans powered by two Porsche car engines, the blimp normally cruises about 1,000 feet above the ground. Its cruising speed is about 40 m.p.h., said Capt. Greg Plants, one of the Fuji blimp's five pilots.

The Japanese film manufacturer spends about $1 million a year to operate the blimp as a mobile billboard. It is one of five in the United States: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. operates three and Metropolitan Insurance Co. flies the other.

Fuji's blimp is filled with about $25,000 worth of non-flammable helium. Dirigibles such as the Hindenburg, which operated in the 1930s, were filled with hydrogen, which is flammable.

Fuji's pilots are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. They steer the blimp much like a conventional airplane, but they also operate levers that funnel outside air into special pockets that help the airship retain its football-like shape as helium pressure fluctuates. The huge nylon-and-plastic envelope has no frame.

During a recent flight, the airship floated over the Ventura Harbor area as children chased its shadow on the ground below. The captain joked with passengers, whose trip had been arranged by Fuji.

At night, the Fuji blimp is moored to a 20-ton mast truck that anchors it to the ground. If a surprise windstorm pulls the blimp from the truck, the mast is equipped with a device that will slice a 40-foot gash in the envelope to deflate the airship before it is blown away.

Blimp chief pilot John McHugh said Camarillo Airport was picked as a Los Angeles-area base for the airship because the skies above Ventura County have little air traffic and the ground at the airport is not crowded.

Although the blimp visited the county briefly in December to provide an aerial television platform for ESPN sports channel cameras covering an Ojai golf tournament, bad weather scrubbed its two main events this month.

Low clouds prevented the blimp from hovering over the Los Angeles Marathon for KCOP-TV, which televised the event March 4. The next day, high winds kept the airship away from the grand opening of a Fuji West Coast headquarters facility in Cypress.

From Camarillo, the blimp heads for its home port of Elizabeth City, N.C. After a two-week stay there, it will start a springtime swing over the Midwest.

Fuji's New York public relations director, Carol Smith, said the blimp's actual departure time from Camarillo is uncertain. "With the blimp, things are always up in the air, no pun intended," she said.

Ground crew chief Johnie Harvey of Elizabeth City said he and other workers will pace the blimp across the country on the ground in trucks. He said he's hoping for happy landings, not the kind of bumpy tie-down that occurred in a little town west of Phoenix the last time the airship traveled through Arizona.

"We all got dragged through the mud," Harvey recalled. "There were 40-knot winds and it was raining. I'll never forget that town."

It was Goodyear, Ariz.

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