Hood Blimp Pilot: ‘I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way’
Flying the Hood Blimp is a lot like operating a boat, but there is a balancing act involved—both in life and in the air.
Mats Backlin has been to a lot of Red Sox games over the years, but he has never actually set foot inside Fenway Park.
For nearly a decade, Backlin has been watching the Sox take on rivals from thousands of feet in the air, as he mans the iconic Hood Blimp, floating for nearly five hours at a time during certain games, and catching all the action on a small screen secured to the front of the vessel that provides footage to broadcast stations from an aerial viewpoint.
“I spend a lot of time over Fenway,” said Backlin, a native of Sweden, who spoke with a slight accent as he described a portion of his decades-long career as a blimp pilot. “I guess I didn’t really understand baseball at first, but I’ve definitely spent a lot of time watching it from up here … but I’m more of a hockey fiend anyways. The Bruins are more for me.”
One of roughly 50 full-time blimp pilots in the world, Backlin began flying gliders at the age of 15, and later added planes to his resume. The pilot, who lives in North Carolina with his wife for four months of the year, began his career designing balloons and airships, and for the last 30 years has focused on operating civilian registered aircrafts.
He is now one of two operators of the Hood Blimp, which is rented by the company for short summer spurts and temporarily wrapped with the logo, designated to coast above major concerts and sporting events around Massachusetts. The blimp came to the East Coast in May from a facility in California.
Backlin got familiar with the blimp by traveling to the West Coast to retrieve it, and then flying back to the Bay State during a three-week period with a crew in tow. While he was in the air, the crew drove along in vans and cars like a “road circus,” the whole way to heading to Beverley where the blimp takes off for each trip to Boston. During the cross-country excursion, Backlin and the crew traveled 250 miles per day, with the blimp going roughly 35 miles-per-hour in a single, straight line. “We will beat a car anywhere,” he said of the stresses he gets to avoid while guiding the blimp from point A to point B.
Backlin likes being in control of the recognizable vessel, specifically because of the way people react when he identifies himself as the pilot, if the conversation comes up. “They say ‘it’s not summer until you see the Hood Blimp,’” said Backlin, adding that his first venture with the New England-based company was in 1996. He has flown the blimp for six summers since then.
What sets the Hood Blimp’s design apart from other companies that rent the aircraft is the simple design, he said, which shines from the sky at night due to the built-in lights and the white space used to cover the blimp. “It’s crisp and clean,” said Backlin. “You can see it from miles away. I think that’s why so many people like it. They tend to be fascinated by it.”
There are often two other questions that are bound to come up when Backlin gets to talking about his profession—and he doesn’t mind answering them truthfully. One, he said, is people want to know if it gets lonely as he idly floats above Boston’s skyline. “It can be very enjoyable,” he said. “The nice thing is, whatever problems you are having in your personal life, you have several hours where you are just focusing on a task.”
The other, more obvious question is about what Backlin does when nature calls since he is in the air for hours on end. When asked, the pilot pulled an empty plastic bottle from beneath one of the seats in the cockpit, and politely said, “What do you think this is for?”
While in the air on Wednesday afternoon, hovering above Route 1 toward Boston, Backlin said, on a perfect day he can see up to 30 miles ahead of him, and easily spot destinations based on landmarks. Sitting with a small window open and his elbow hanging out as if on a road trip in a car—something he bragged can’t be done on an airplane—Backlin described how he steers and operates the blimp, likening it to a boat. The vessel has a steering wheel latched to the side of Backlin’s seat, reminiscent of a captain’s ship wheel, and two pedals that sit beneath his feet that help tilt the aircraft left and right.
Two rudders are attached to the blimp, and move through the air like rudders in the water, creating a motion much like a boat would experience from waves on the ocean. “There are a lot of analogies between this and a boat,” he said from the cockpit, which looks like a mix between a taxicab—but with a little more legroom—and a small airplane, rife with switches, blinking lights, and gauges marked with dozens of metered numbers.
After an hour-long trip over Boston, coasting above MIT, Fenway Park, and a few hundred feet higher than the John Hancock building, Backlin steered the vessel toward the coastline, where he checked out the beaches as he headed back to the landing field. “I like this part,” he said, pointing toward Nahant Beach. “The blimp flies about the same speed as a pelican. We don’t see them in Boston, but when I have flown in Florida, sometimes you can pull up next to them in formation. It’s quite fun,” he said.
Back on the ground in Beverly, a crew waited for Backlin to bring the blimp toward the grassy field, so they could grab ropes and securely tie it to a post by the runway. The pilot said unlike a plane, where he could take out the keys and walk away, the blimp needs to be tended to almost 24 hours a day. “It’s always alive. It’s like our own little baby,” he said.
As Backlin touched down, he barely had a chance to exchange words with the staff, who hurriedly brought on bags of lead to stabilize the weight as two passengers stepped off the blimp. Then, he was off again on another one of his missions, puttering into the horizon, back toward Boston. “I have to go take some pictures of a Ferris Wheel,” he said, talking loudly over the sound of the double-engine at the back of the blimp. And with that, he lifted off.