Millions of kids have seen a blimp on occasion, but how many of them have then hopped on their bicycles, rushed out to the airport, hunted down the pilot and demanded that he give them a ride?
"Just one that I remember," says Roy Belotti, former captain of the Columbia, the Goodyear airship that was docked at Flushing airport in New York City. Belotti can still recall the heavyset 10-year-old who showed up on his bicycle in the summer of '64.
"I told him that I was sorry, but only Goodyear employees, their families and members of the working press could go up in the blimp," Belotti says. The boy pleaded. He whined, begged and cajoled. Belotti wouldn't budge. Finally the youngster came up with an angle. He was a reporter for his elementary school newspaper, so....
The boy's name was Lou Pearlman, and he got his ride. That he eventually came to own the Metropolitan Life, Sea World and Budweiser blimps was no surprise to those who knew him back then. Pearlman has always loved blimps. More important, he has always had what, in the old neighborhood, is called chutzpah.
After that first ride Pearlman continued to hang out at the Flushing airfield. He worked on the Goodyear crew in the summers during high school and college. While his classmates were at home on midyear break, he was working the Super Bowl. All the while he was studying the blimp business, inside and out, confident that he would one day find a blimp to buy and a client willing to finance its operating costs. "Back then America was a one-blimp [Goodyear] nation," he says. "I thought we could do better."
That he had to wait so long for his very own blimp—until he was 26—was a disappointment to Pearlman, but he kept busy. In 1975, before he was even out of Queens College, he founded a helicopter company that served New York commuters. Financing for the business came in part from his uncle Jack Garfunkel, who was Art's father. A short time later he expanded into the airline business and formed an alliance with the German airline WDL Flugdienst. When Pearlman met with WDL president Theodor Wüllenkemper, the latter was dumbfounded. "You're just a baby!" Wüllenkemper exclaimed.
Pearlman was insulted. "What do you mean?" he said. "I'm 21 years old!"
Eventually, with the help of an investor, he bought his first blimp, for half a million dollars, and found a client, Jordache sportswear, to sponsor it. The day of its maiden voyage, in October 1980, Pearlman was bursting with pride. The blimp, which bore the Jordache logo, was painted gold.
"It was a designer blimp," he says. Standing beside the runway of the Lakehurst, N.J., airport, Pearlman watched as his blimp rose into the sky, pivoted to the southwest and began listing to starboard. It seems that on the side of the blimp that faced the sun, the gold paint had absorbed heat, causing the helium inside to expand unevenly. The blimp started moving in circles and then slowly spiraled toward the ground, finally crashing into the trees just a few hundred yards from the site of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.
"I was standing beside the FAA official who had just authorized the blimp for takeoff," Pearlman remembers. "We were both pretty glum." Fortunately the pilot escaped serious injury.