The Jobs of Summer

For blimp pilot, life is a breeze at 1,000 feet

ONE THOUSAND FEET OVER FENWAY PARK — It is probably fair to say Terry Dillard’s summer job is tops in Boston.

At least in a literal sense, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes higher each day for work. (Consider: Even if you labor in a cubicle on a top floor of New England’s tallest building, the John Hancock Tower, you’re less than 800 measly feet above terra firma.)

Dillard floats roughly 1,000 feet above Fenway Park, steering the Hood blimp over that fabled little bandbox hour after hour, pitch after pitch.

All you hear are two purring engines, crackling radio traffic from Logan Airport, and Dillard’s rumbling laugh, which tumbles past his horseshoe moustache and caroms around the control room walls.


The pilot’s compartment resembles a passenger van, just with more complex dials and panoramic windows. The ballplayers below are glints of white, red, and gray gleaming in the afternoon sun.

“We’ve got the best seat in the house,” Dillard said. “Hanging above Fenway Park is just an excitement all in its own.”

Yes, Dillard allows, his job is pretty good. But is it the best?

Before you answer, consider all the people he has to keep happy.

For one, there is the obvious constituent: Hood. The dairy company hires Dillard’s airship group, Van Wagner, to fly over about 20 summer home games and some other events. Hood’s name is plastered in big bold letters along the blimp’s side, which stretches the length of three school buses.

When the blimp is up in the air, Dillard must make sure the Hood sign is visible. The sweet spot is 1,000 feet — clearly within sight, but far enough above the people below to satisfy the Federal Aviation Administration (another group whose standards he must meet).

“If I fly over 1,000 feet, you’re not going to be able to read that Hood banner,” Dillard said.


A view of Boston from the blimp.
A view of Boston from the blimp.Zachary T. Sampson for the Boston Globe

His pilot seat resembles a wheelchair. He steers left and right using pedals, and spins two wheels affixed to his seat to point the blimp’s nose up and down.

Usually, Dillard makes only left turns — like a race car driver — because it’s easier to keep an eye on the stadium over his left shoulder. To his right sits a bulky high-definition camera controlled from behind by a videographer with a joystick.

“I can make him look very good, or I can make him look very bad,” Dillard said, motioning toward George McKeon, the freelance videographer for a recent Sunday game.

Footage from the camera is patched down to NESN for television coverage. A director barks demands from a trailer parked beside Fenway, and Dillard knows better than to disappoint when the TV people want an aerial shot.

“When he says you’re on air, you don’t wiggle, you don’t burp, you don’t take a bite of your sandwich,” Dillard said.

All around the stadium are hospitals that serve as landing spots for medical helicopters, and Dillard must be on the lookout for other aircraft as well. When officials at the airport call, he cannot miss it.

“If I miss Logan’s call, he’s going to tell me to get out of his airspace,” the 60-year-old said.

Then there’s the weather. Being in a blimp is sort of like being in a boat, except you’re riding below the hull. The airship pitches and sways in the wind. It does not handle foul weather well.


“Constantly, you’re like an owl, swiveling around looking at formations of clouds,” said Dillard, who admits he has “been chased by a thunderstorm or two.”

And, of course, there’s the matter of the toilet — there isn’t one. Dillard makes sure his passengers know: He has a big empty Gatorade bottle, and you should, too.

By his estimation, there are just about 20 blimps worldwide (not including unknown military projects), with some 60 drivers.

Dillard has piloted unusual aircraft since the 1970s, when he sold his Porsche to buy a hot air balloon in Florida. He has flown over Super Bowls, Daytona and Indianapolis 500s, Olympic games, and Kentucky Derbies.

When it visits Massachusetts in the summer, the Hood blimp is tied down at Beverly Municipal Airport. It is filled with nonflammable helium, and covers the space between Beverly and Boston at about 40 miles per hour.

Dillard loads enough fuel to keep the blimp bobbing above Fenway for at least a few hours — packing extra for Yankees games that sometimes stretch four or five hours.

As soon as cold weather comes, Dillard, who lives in Orlando, flees south with a small crew that stays with the airship at all times. Dillard calls them “road warriors,” and his wife often joins on the trips.

But in the summer? There’s no place he would rather be than New England.

“It’s very, very beautiful and of course the lobsters aren’t too bad,” Dillard said. He plans to pilot blimps as long as his health allows.


So is it the best job around? Dillard says he’s not sure — the duck boat drivers probably have a good gig, too.

But when the sky tints the Charles azure, and the sun washes the Fenway green in gold, from his seat atop the city, Dillard can’t help but say, “Man, life is good.”

Terry Dillard at the controls.
Terry Dillard at the controls.Zachary T. Sampson for the Boston Globe

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.