‘Flying Cucumber’ turns heads over LaGrange
LaGRANGE — No, it wasn’t a UFO cruising over Troup County on Friday, although some may “want to believe.”
The unusual sight that graced the skies midday was a 136-foot blimp dubbed “The Flying Cucumber,” part of an advertising campaign by the Scottish maker of Hendrick’s Gin. Its vegetable-green skin is marked with the company’s logo and two massive, peering eyes on the port and starboard sides — the “Bureau of Surveillance,” the company’s gimmick says.
The blimp, an A60+ Lightship model, contains about 69,000 cubic feet of helium and cruises at about 35 mph, said Adriane Croeser, the pilot. The average cruising altitude is about 1,500 feet, he added.
The airship stopped overnight at the LaGrange-Callaway Airport after leaving Montgomery, Alabama, on its way to New York. The threat of bad weather on the eastern seaboard headed toward New York led the crew to stop in LaGrange, said Chad Traylor, the airport’s manager.
It might seem uncommon, but Traylor said the airport has hosted “four or five” blimps over the past two years, the first being the MetLife blimp, which is actually the same model as “The Flying Cucumber.”
The county charges about $75 per night to park a blimp at the airport, and the crew members rent hotel rooms and eat at local restaurants, Traylor noted.
“It’s really a benefit for the county, and for the local economy,” Traylor said.
Croeser, the pilot, said the flight to LaGrange couldn’t have had better weather, and the view from above was spectacular.
“My favorite is when I get to fly on a nice day. That’s great,” he said after landing at the airport. “The ride from Montgomery to LaGrange is absolutely beautiful countryside.”
Croeser has been piloting blimps for 22 years, he said, and he got his start in his native country of South Africa. He’s also a fixed-wing aircraft pilot and instructor, he said. Inside the small cabin of the blimp, an instrument panel with gauges, knobs and switches sits in front of the seats for the pilot and co-pilot. Just a few feet behind them in the surprisingly small cabin, two more seats are available for passengers.
A cadre of more than a dozen ground crew members met Croeser and the blimp at the airport, drilling stakes deep into the ground for a tall mast, to which the airship moors its front, allowing it to swivel in the breeze like a giant windsock.
R.J. Maniscalco, a ground crew member, said he and the rest of the crew caravan between landings, staying close to the blimp in case something goes wrong and the pilot needs to land.
“We usually stay within about 40 miles,” he said. “Sometimes rain causes it to land early, but unless something goes really wrong, we have a good amount of time to set up before it lands.”
Maniscalco added that in his two years as a ground crew member, the blimp has never had a major incident. The crew does regular maintenance on the craft, and frequent readings are taken of the blimp’s pressure and other vitals.
“The Flying Cucumber” was expected to leave LaGrange on Saturday morning, but may stay longer if weather conditions are unfavorable. Because of security and safety reasons, the blimp will not be available for tours or visits, but Traylor, the airport managr, invites the public to view the blimp from the airport’s terminal lobby as long as it’s in town.