US Navy Blimp-NYC-Hudson River-Untapped CitiesThe US Navy blimp spotted on the Untapped Cities Instagram account.

Next time you look up in the sky and see a blimp, think about this: there are only 25 blimps in operation in the world, 10 of which are in the United States. There are 56 pilots in the US certified to fly these behemoth balloons. As blimp pilot Terry Dillard told CBS 2’s Alex Denis at the Allaire Airport in Farmingdale, “There are more space shuttle pilots than blimp pilots.” Of course, we all know that the Empire State Building spire was meant to dock airships (but it never really happened). So where do the country’s 10 blimps take off from?

The blimp in Alex Denis’ ride took off from an airport in Farmingdale, NY. They can lift off from generally anywhere, as long as they have a plenty of space– a stretch of field or runway will do. Most modern blimps are heavier than air at launch, as opposed to older helium blimps, so they launch mostly by directing the force of their engines upward. Bill Beebe has a walkthrough for launching a blimp in this way, and details the following four easy steps for launching a blimp:

  1. Get everybody lined up.
  2. Decouple the blimp’s nose from the mooring mast.
  3. Pull ‘er waaaay back (the lined up people tug ropes from on either side of the blimb, beginning to slightly lift it off the ground)
  4. Rev up the engines, let ‘er go, and let ‘er fly!

The CBS report tells that blimps in flight are heavily affected by slight changes in weather and wind patterns, as well as changes in the surface of the ground below them. This makes taking off and landing the most dangerous and precise procedures out of the whole process of operating a blimp. It also made a docking station at the top of the Empire State Building unpractical, because wind gusts could reach 30+ MPH up there and it would be treacherous for the workers in charge of operating the launch and dock processes on the 102nd floor of the tower.

Also this week, we covered the Goodyear Blimp hangar at the former Holmes Airport, the city’s first municipal airport (before LaGuardia and JFK).

Read more from our Cities 101 series about how stuff works in the city.