Even Tiger Woods looks up to Brian Comer, who's only a fourteen-handicapper. Comer, 38, is chief pilot for MetLife, the company whose blimps, Snoopy One and Snoopy Two, provide aerial shots for golf telecasts. "There are fourteen people in our crew," he says, "all golfers." And yes, sometimes they get to play the courses they cover: "We've played Doral, the TPCs at Sugarloaf and Heron Bay, and the Slammer and Squire course at the World Golf Village. For us, life is one big golf trip."
Five years ago the Syracuse, New York, native was a flight instructor in Kissimmee, Florida, a hub of the blimp biz. Sensing his shot at a soaring career, Comer spent seven months learning to fly blimps. Soon he was working for MetLife, which also entered the business via Kissimmee, leasing a larger blimp from Orlando-based Airship International in 1987. Six years later MetLife switched to two smaller models made by ABC (that's the American Blimp Corporation, of course). Each of these pups is 130 feet long, with 68,000 cubic feet of helium—two-thirds the length and a third the volume of a Goodyear blimp. "Smaller blimps are quieter and more maneuverable," says Cathy O'Brien of MetLife. They are cheap, too. In fact, their deal with the networks involves no money. During telecasts, the network covering a tournament must show the blimp and mention it at least once per hour. In return, the blimp provides those God's-eye views that TV golf fans take for granted.
At football or baseball games, a blimp might only provide establishing shots, but in golf the big balloon is part of the telecast, tracking the ball down fairways, sneaking up on players, fearful of its own shadow. Each of the Snoopys carries a 250-pound gyro-stabilized camera on the nose of its gondola; each camera features an 80x zoom lens that's about ten times as powerful as the average pair of binoculars. Inside the four-seat gondola, a technician operates the camera with remote-control joysticks, as in a video game, while a director in the earthbound production truck barks orders via radio. "You've got the director yapping away, the cameraman talking and air traffic control calling you on the radio," Comer says. "I might even put on a CD to make things really chaotic." Amid the chaos, the pilot keeps an even keel. "You have to avoid pointing your cameraman toward the sun, and you must keep an eye on the blimp's shadow. The shadow is your enemy—you'd better never let your airship's shadow move over a player when he's in his backswing."
Sometimes a blimp can help the players: "If a guy hits a lousy shot, we'll fly over areas where a ground-based cameraman can't go and try to spot the ball." At this year's Bay Hill Invitational, Comer and crew failed to find wayward shots by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. "Tiger's ball was plugged and Mickelson's was covered by trees." But at the 1999 Ryder Cup, Comer bagged the shot of his career. "Nobody expected the U.S. players to go into the clubhouse to celebrate," he says. When they did, TV was shut out until Snoopy One floated to the rescue. "We flew low over the clubhouse and got the champagne shot you still see today. The cameraman and I were high-fiving—that's my favorite moment ever."
Like cowboys, the blimps sleep under the stars and have no home, each logging more than 60,000 miles a year. Powered by twin sixty-eight-horsepower engines, they cruise at 40 m.p.h. and average a fuel- guzzling five miles per gallon while traveling between events. They can cruise a mile high and can reach up to 10,000 feet but usually stay under 2,000 feet for golf coverage.
Blimping is often sedate, but the job gets dicey when a thunderstorm rumbles in. "When you're right on the edge of a major storm, things can get hairy," Comer says. Never hairier than the night last September when hurricane-force winds surprised the crew in Kansas City. One of the blimps broke its leash and flew away. After two long hours the unmanned 4,400-pound pooch was found on a farm seventy-five miles away, lying on its side against a tractor, unbroken but visibly deflated.