The Blimp Story

It was the sweltering New York City August of 1980, but inside Bond International Casino at Times Square it was very cool in both senses of the word. You'd go through the heavy glass doors at the street level, and up the magical musical glass spiral staircase which lit up and played a different tune for everyone who ascended. Then into the atrium festooned with a forest of impossibly exotic flowers, fresh every day, and through into the main dancefloor where you discovered an enormous room with 30 foot ceilings. There were dozens of tables to sit at around the edges of the dance area, and kinetic light sculptures made with gas discharge tubes filled with neon, argon, and other exotic gasses producing as many different shades of color.

"Bond" was the hottest new disco to appear on the scene in that cocaine-fueled disco crazed year, and it was packed every night (in violation of fire codes). The dance floor, as huge as it was, was covered with dancers. Every so often, one of the giant inflatable creature sculptures that lived hidden in the ceiling would venture out, inflate itself, and loom over the patrons to ooohs and aaahs.

There would be a performance of the "dancing waters" at one end of the room, an elaborate set of fountains that were moveable and controlled by a console from the control room. The whole thing was installed in huge, shallow tub about 35 feet long.

But the zenith of the evening, highly anticipated, was when a garage sized door would open high over the dance floor, and to the strains of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", "The Blimp" a golden airship 11 feet long would slowly emerge and circulate over the dancers, with its dozens of twinkling lights.

It would first do a circuit of the room, then perhaps a few figure eights. Then it might start rolling over like a speeding bullet, or start spinning backwards in place. After that it would do a parting circuit or two and disappear back into the door from which it came. The whole performance might've lasted all of 10 minutes.

The "Casino", which wasn't really a casino, didn't last long, only about 2 years, I think. But it was the heyday for the blimp that Bill Sansom and I built, the culmination of work we began around 1975.

Bill Sansom and I were classmates at Cold Spring Harbor High School '64, the first class in what at the time was a brand new (unfinished) high school with only one class. Bill's father, who he idolized, was an airline pilot, but if Bill had aspirations to follow in his footsteps, he had to give them up due to his extreme myopia, requiring thick glasses. But he still loved airplanes and flying, and was an avid builder of flying model planes.

In those days, most flying models were "control line" planes, which the "pilot" would fly in circles, controlling only the altitude using the differential pull on the two pieces of line. With this arrangement it was still possible to do some very impressive flying, because these planes could fly upside down as well as right side up. It was even possible to fly figure eights! I remember Bill mentioning a stunt called a "c eight", which was a figure eight with square corners. This required sudden jerking movements of the control lines.

Radio controlled planes had existed for quite a while, but they were very expensive, and as a kid Bill never had the money to build one. But he always wanted to fly an aircraft by radio control, with the freedom to go anyplace, any direction. This desire never faded in him, it only intensified.

Bill and I graduated high school in 1964. We each did a year in college, and we each dropped out after one year. Soon we were both drafted. Bill opted for the Marines, I for the army. We both were eventually sent to Vietnam. Bill was shot in the leg in his first month in the country. I spent a whole year there, and wasn't injured apart from having most of my high frequency hearing obliterated.

By 1977, we had been out of touch for years, but when I moved to Hempstead Long Island while Bill was living in Sea Cliff about 30 minutes away, I called him up, and we got together, and pretty soon the conversation came around to flying model planes, and Bill suddenly said, "wouldn't it be great to have a tiny radio controlled model plane you could fly in your living room? Or maybe a blimp?"

Next thing you know we were making plans. Soon we were out in my garage in the dead of winter trying to build a blimp.

Our first attempt was worthless. We hadn't done the math. We didn't know how much weight to allow for the batteries, drive motors, radio and the servo motors to steer the thing, and not only that we didn't even know how much weight our blimp would be able to carry. It was a stab in the dark, and it was also a pretty bad design for a lot of reasons. At 4 feet long, it was nowhere near big enough to carry significant weight.

We scaled back our ambition temporarily and decided to build some smaller versions without radio control, which gave us some valuable experience. And I started doing the math.

Helium is the only gas that is suitable for blimps, because the only other gas light enough, hydrogen, is explosive, as the Zeppelin company found out in 1937. The amount of lift that can be had from helium can be calculated, and it turns out to be just about one ounce per cubic foot at normal temperatures and pressures. So we would need one cubic foot of blimp volume for every ounce of blimp. Motors are heavy, and batteries are heavier still, so this pointed to a much larger blimp than we had initially envisioned.

Bill, forever the showman, insisted that the blimp should be "aerobatic"; in other words capable of doing certain maneuvers such as loops and rolls. This made things considerably more difficult, because the heavy parts could not simply be placed in a "gondola" hanging under the skin like a traditional airship, but would have to be either equally distributed all around the outside, or somehow suspended inside the blimp near the center of gravity. Having things inside the skin with the helium seemed like a bad idea, since these items would need maintenance.

We came up with the idea of a hollow, gas tight "spar" running through the center of the blimp bag, from front to back. This way, the radio, servos, and batteries could be inserted through the ends and removed for adjustment or maintenance without deflating the bag, or even breaking the seal anywhere.

We had to make a few more attempts before we had a working design, and by that time our blimp had grown to almost 11 feet long, and over 3 feet in diameter. Hardly the kind of thing you could fly in your living room, but it could be flown in a disco! We also flew it for some special events at Town Hall in NYC, and in a convention center in Washington, DC.

The blimp still exists, and is still functional, although finding a place big enough to fly it for fun is problematic.

But by this time the hobby market had made tremendous advances, and there were radio/servo sets available at a fraction of the previous weight and power needs. This inspired Bill to make a smaller, more living room sized blimp and he did. This one wasn't "aerobatic", but at only 38" long it really could fly in a (largish) living room. Unfortunately, this blimp ended up being destroyed by one of my cats.

Something we had always intended was to have a digitally controlled lighted sign on the blimp, and we both put in a lot of work on this. We used tiny red leds, which were a new thing on the market, and mounted them on a piece of foamcore board. I designed and built the digital circuits to control them, and a method of recording animations on a walkman. To generate program material for the sign, I thought we needed a computer, so Bill bought a $99 "single board" computer. This was in 1978 or 79. An Apple II was about $3000 then, and we were both too poor for anything like that. Neither of us knew anything about computer programming, but I started learning. Eventually I had a program that could easily make a lot of different types of animations, as well as a video camera connected to an interface I built for the computer. I started burning a lot of midnight oil in my computer corner.

We were never able to put the digital sign on the blimp, because of weight issues. We would have had to build a larger blimp. But my experience with writing code for that $99 computer became my resume' when I decided to go into computer programming, and it landed me a job almost immediately. I needed the job because my son Ben had been born in August 1981, and my freelance woodworking business wasn't cutting the mustard. Once I became employed full time there was little time for blimp work, and Bill and I saw less of each other.

Bill went on during the 80's to do a lot of fiber optic related lighting work, including a ceiling for a club called "Versage" in the west 40's, another for the St. Francis Hotel In San Francisco, and even one somewhere in Belgium. He also held 4 patents on fiber optic related devices that he developed.

Some of the blimp computer work eventually led to starting my 33 year career in computer programming.

Bill Dotson

Some links to info about Bond International Casino: