An advertising blimp was destroyed in a ball of fire above Germany on Sunday, killing its pilot. However aircraft captain Mike Nerandzic saved his passengers by ordering them to jump clear as the ship hovered just above the ground.
Reportedly the ship, an A-60 blimp operated by the Lightship Group on behalf of Goodyear, was coming in to land when fire broke out in both engines - possibly the result of propellors hitting the ground. The ship then found itself approximately 2 metres up.
At this point pilot Mike Nerandzic shouted to his three passengers "we're having a crash!", and ordered them to jump out. All three did so safely, after which the ship ascended rapidly - probably due to the loss of the passengers' weight. Flames swiftly engulfed the gondola, killing Nerandzic and then largely destroying the craft's envelope. Only wreckage survived to hit the ground in a nearby field.
Nerandzic was a veteran airship pilot who had begun flying blimps in 1985 after early experience as a fixed-wing charter pilot in Sydney. He had logged more than 12,000 hours in airships and had flown them above no fewer than five Olympic Games.
A commenter on the airship portal airships.net wrote:
Mike Nerandzic was a good friend and taught me to fly airships. He was simply one of the best airship pilots in the world. Anyone in the industry will tell you that.
From what I am told by colleges in the industry and closely connected to that operation, Mike showed great bravery when the incident occurred and saved the lives of the three passengers.
The A-60 blimp is helium filled and thus presents no fire hazard from its lifting gas. However due to having no rigid structure - blimps maintain their shape by means of internal pressure in the envelope - it necessarily has its engines and propellors, with associated fuel lines, as part of the gondola structure in which the crew and passengers travel.
In the USA, Goodyear Corp maintains its own airship fleet rather than contracting out. The company has recently announced that it will replace its existing three blimps with Zeppelin NT semi-rigid craft, which have a partial internal skeleton of GRP and aramid cables allowing the engines to be situated away from the gondola. This offers handling benefits as well as improved safety in a situation like that which occurred in Germany yesterday.
Three Zeppelin NTs are already in service: one operating from the Zeppelin company's home base in Germany, one based in Japan and one at Silicon Valley's famous Moffett Field. ®