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Blimp my ride

For games at Fenway, Katharine Board has the ultimate sky box

BEVERLY -- The control tower has cleared Katharine Board for departure. The three guys holding the ropes and the two holding the cabin in place simply let go and clear out of the way.

The Hood Airship is suddenly aloft, as light as a feather, 1,000 feet over Beverly Airport. Destination: Fenway Park, where, as any Red Sox fan knows, the blimp is a fixture during games, as omnipresent as the RemDawg. What fans don't know is that the blimp is often captained by Board, the world's only female blimp pilot, who is finishing her first season in New England.

There have been one or two others in the past, she says, but she is the only one actively employed. With 150 licensed pilots in the world, it's a tight-knit fraternity with one sister.

''I think they expected me to last two weeks. That was eight years ago," she says, as she steers the ship toward Fenway while giving a reporter a ride to demonstrate her job. ''It's like having a huge number of big brothers. I do miss girlfriends. I desperately want someone to go shopping with." Her humor is of the dry British variety, punctuated with wry smiles.

Below her is Route 1, with Wal-Mart and other chain stores pocking the landscape. The Atlantic is off to the east; gentle hills rise in the west. To the south, the Boston skyline beckons. It's a warm autumn day, and the roads, heated by the sun, are giving an extra lift to the helium-filled blimp. ''It rides on air like a boat rides in the water," she says. ''The only difference is, you can't see the waves."

The blimp's equivalent of waves is the wind: Strong winds can cause a bumpy and even hazardous flight. ''The best time ever to ride in a blimp is a nice, calm evening and it's just gorgeous," says Board, 30. ''I get up here and I say, 'I can't believe they pay me to do this.' "

She was working for a hot-air balloon company in her native England when her boss asked whether she would consider piloting a blimp. ''I thought about it for three seconds and said yes," says Board, who already had her airplane license. There are no flight schools for blimp pilots; they learn from the veterans. But there is an exam, and pilots in the United States are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Her parents were actually relieved when she became a blimp pilot. ''My sister ran off at 14 or 15 and joined the circus," she says. ''Which is where she met her husband, who is a clown." Today the couple runs a circus school in Switzerland. ''Our parents," Board says, ''are actually quite normal."

The trip to Fenway
The six-year-old Hood Airship is the world's newest blimp. But by today's aeronautical standards, blimps are prehistoric, dinosaurs that date to the late 1800s. The Hood blimp has two 80-horsepower engines on either side of the cabin, the same kind used by the Volkswagen Beetle, says Board's boss Mats Backlin, who is the chief pilot for the New England operation and who takes turns with Board piloting the Hood ship.

The blimp, owned and operated by the Lightship Group out of Orlando, Fla., is stationed at the Beverly and Mansfield airports for the four months it is leased by Hood, July through October. It's basically a floating billboard; its mission is to get the Hood name to viewers throughout New England. When the Sox aren't playing at home, the Hood Airship is dispatched to other places. This week, while the Red Sox are in Chicago, the blimp is at the Topsfield Fair. But Board expects to be back at Fenway for Friday's game against the White Sox. The blimp also serves a practical purpose: Camera operators from the New England Sports Network take their aerial shots from aboard the blimp.

Before anyone envies Board's job, consider that the blimp takes off at 4:30 p.m. in order to arrive two hours before a 7 p.m. game, hovers overhead for the duration, then returns to the airport, landing in the wee hours if there are extra innings. There is no bathroom in the small ''gondola," or cabin, which is attached to the bottom of the 132-foot-long balloon. ''I steer clear of coffee in the morning if I'm going up. A strong bladder is essential for this job," says Board, whose friends call her Kate. (She doesn't love the nickname, because ''you know: Kate Board, skateboard.")

The crew helps launch and land the blimp using low-tech maneuvers. On takeoff, the members untether it from a large metal pole, lead it by ropes to a grassy field next to the airstrip, figure out the ballast needed -- adding 25-pound lead bags, or not, depending on the weight of any passengers -- and let go of the ropes when the pilot is cleared for takeoff. The ropes always dangle from the aircraft, invisible to the crowds below. When it's time to land, the pilot, who flies solo, steers the blimp back to the airport (using foot pedals that work the rudder), cuts the engine, and uses a large wheel next to the seat to descend.

''It's not like being an airplane pilot, where you're basically an airborne computer operator," Board says. ''It's one of the very few aircraft these days where you can still fly by the seat of your pants."

But being more at the mercy of Mother Nature has its hazards. When she was flying in France, a powerful wind blew her backward at full power. ''It was getting dark, and I was running out of power," she says. After trying everything else, she got the blimp up to 4,500 feet, above the wind, and finally made an emergency landing.

More destinations
At the end of October, with its New England tour complete, the crew will fly the blimp down to North Carolina (a three-day trip), its winter home base, where it will be deflated. The Lightship Group will then deploy Board and the rest of the 13-member crew elsewhere in the United States, or to Indonesia or China.

Board, who has a serious boyfriend in England, where they both live, is on the road -- or in the sky -- more than 10 months a year. But she's not complaining. ''I'm what is known as a helium head, or a blimp fanatic," she says cheerfully. She says she loves New England and is especially looking forward to viewing the famous fall foliage from above.

But what does she think of the Red Sox, from her unique perch high above Fenway, where she watches the games on a monitor attached to the dashboard?

''I know nothing about baseball, but I've developed into a bit of a Red Sox fan," she says. ''I cheer them on, and I just hope they don't go into extra innings."

The Hood Airship, launched in May 1999, is the world's newest blimp.

Length: 132 feet

Height: 44 feet

Width: 37 feet

Passengers: 3-4, plus pilot

Volume: 70,000 cubic feet of helium

Empty weight: 2,770 pounds

Power: twin 80-horsepower engines

Fuel capacity: 74 gallons

Fuel consumption: 4 gallons per hour

Cruising speed: 32 miles per hour

Maximum speed: 55 miles per hour

Maximum rate of climb: 1,600 feet per minute

Average cruising altitude: 1,000-1,500 feet

Range: 425 miles

Maximum airborne duration: 15 hours

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