Indoor “float” flying at sporting events
On the final day of new pilot training,
we use four airships with different flying
characteristics. L-R: Al Kozusko, Brian Bailey,
Chris Soltesz, and Bill Garman.
Zeppelins, dirigibles, blimps, airships, and balloons … there is something amazing about these gigantic aircraft that serenely float across the sky. These enormous bags of gas
seem to defy gravity, or at the very least, escape gravity’s notice
for a brief jaunt above a sports stadium.
Someone had the genius to wonder, “Why just fly over the
arenas? Let’s take them indoors as well!”
That’s where I come in. For the past decade and a half, I
have had the pleasure of serving as captain of the Airship Team
for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a National Hockey League team.
I fly the airships, and have trained other pilots to do so as well.
It takes a team of pilots and ground crew to make everything
happen perfectly when timing must be precise and failure is
not an option.
What are the airships and how do they work? RC stadium
airships come in all sizes and shapes. From roughly 8 feet to
more than 30 feet long, their sizes vary based on the venue, the
flying conditions (indoors vs. outdoors), and what the airship
will be carrying (banners, cameras, prize-drop mechanisms,
etc.). They can be electric or gas powered, and a well-balanced
aircraft can stay aloft for more than an hour in the right
Most airships have similar components, starting with the
envelope or bag. The envelope is what gives an airship its lift.
Filled with helium and lightly pressurized for a firm shape, the
envelope is a sealed bag of lighter-than-air gas. The bag must
be large enough to contain enough volume to lift everything:
the envelope, the tail fins, tail motor, gondola, main motors,
RC components, batteries or gas, and anything extra you might
want to carry. The volume must also be balanced, so that the
aircraft flies level and not nose up or nose down.
The most common shape is a sideways teardrop because it
stays aerodynamically neutral. You don’t want it to climb or
descend unintentionally when you go forward. Envelopes are
made from plastic or vinyl, and are not much more durable
than your average lawn or construction-grade trash bag.
Filling the airships requires a lot of helium! Smaller aircraft
use less than 300 cubic feet, or roughly one 5-foot cylinder,
while our larger ones gobble up four or more cylinders. At an
average of $150 per cylinder for a day of flying, it quickly adds
up. My crew and I currently fly two aircraft per game, using six
or seven cylinders to fill both, although we try to hangar them
as fully inflated as possible between games to conserve helium
Filling an aircraft with helium is easy. After spreading it
out on a ground cloth, we tether the front and rear to ground
weights. We hook up a hose to the fill port on the ship and
then gently crack open the helium cylinder, creating a large
pocket of helium in the envelope by the fill port.
We gradually increase the flow, because too fast of a flow
can rip the envelope with the unregulated air. When the
envelope begins lifting off the ground, the gondola, tail fins,
batteries, and a few weights are added, and the airship drops
back to the ground.
by Chris Soltesz
41 Model Aviation MARCH 2014