A trip through the Lower Keys has Keys residents doing a double take as the iconic Fat Albert blimp appears to have procreated.
Flexing its massive investigate muscles, the Weekly happened to connect with Chip Lyons in hopes of unraveling the Lower Keys blimp mystery. Lyons is the manager of the Cudjoe Key Aerostat Site. He was ready with “answers” for our readers, but he is also earning every single penny of his paycheck by keeping the secrets of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that manages the blimps. Our conversation went something like this:
Are there two blimps in the sky? “I can confirm that there are two flying right now,” Lyons admitted.
Why are there two? “I cannot tell you,” he said, politely.
Well, then, are they same size? “They are different sizes,” he confirmed, measuring his words with economy.
How high can they go? “All the way up … if we would let them,” he laughed.
Okay, how long is the tether? “The tether length is not available,” he added, voice cracking.
What is the purpose of the blimps? “I am not going to explain to you what we do, but we do it for homeland security,” he said, his voice strangled with suppressed laughter.
How long will the two blimps be flying? “I can’t say for sure,” he said. Extra points for cagey and crafty.
By this point, we were both laughing. I paused for a minute, wracking my brain to think of questions he WOULD answer. He finally told me there are similar blimps along the border with Mexico, one in Puerto Rico and this one in the Keys. The Keys’ aerostat site (that’s what the in-the-know folks call ’em), began operation about 1980 and there are 26 employees. Heedless, I plunged back in with more questions:
What do you, the employees on Cudjoe, call the blimps? “We call them aerostats, or the balloon, or the bag …”
Is there room for a person on the blimp? “We don’t fly people. But we do bungee jumping every Saturday from 10,000 feet,” Lyon said, giving up all pretense this was a serious interview.
And here’s the best part: Honest to goodness confirmation that, yes, one time the Keys blimp did get away. “It got loose and settled down over water. Three fishermen tied the tether off to the boat. But when the sun came up and superheated the helium, the blimp pulled the boat out of the water and started drifting off …”
Want some better answers? Lyons will direct you to the Customs and Border Patrol website: www.cbp.gov/frontline/frontline-november-aerostats. It’s filled with exciting details like the tensile strength of blimp tethers. Have at it.