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Pioneer pilot.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

ABOARD THE GOODYEAR BLIMP "SPIRIT OF AMERICA" - On a picturesque day made for flying, Taylor Laverty gently guides a 13,000-pound, helium-filled American icon as it floats through the sky above Eugene.

Gently, because she has precious cargo on board: her grandparents, Jerry and Alice Dordan of Newport, both taking their first-ever blimp rides.

"This is amazing for me to come into my home state and fly the blimp here," says Laverty, a native Oregonian, 2005 graduate of Toledo High School and one of just three female blimp pilots in the world, as she slowly soars 1,500 feet above the Willamette River, Alton Baker Park and the Ferry Street Bridge on the way back to the Eugene Airport.

Laverty, 28, has been flying the Carson, Calif.-based Goodyear Blimp "Spirit of America" for 3 1/2 years now.

But she had never flown it in Oregon until the airship crossed over the California border on Wednesday, part of an 11-hour flight from Arcata, Calif., to Eugene in some tricky headwinds.

The famous blimp is in Eugene through Sunday, part of a monthlong "West Coast Farewell Tour" before it retires in August after 13 years of flying the Southern California skies and helping TV networks show aerial views of everything from Rose Bowl football games to Super Bowls to the Academy Awards.

Thirteen years is a good lifespan for a blimp, Goodyear spokesman Eddie Ogden says Thursday morning at Lawrence Aviation Service next to the airport. The longest a Goodyear blimp was in service was the "Spirit of Goodyear," which retired in 2014 after 14 years, he says.

Goodyear currently has three blimps in service in the United States. The other two are the tire and rubber company's "Wingfoot One," based at company headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and "Spirit of Innovation," based in Pompano Beach, Fla. The latter will replace "Spirit of America" in the L.A. market, while "Wingfoot One" moves to Florida.

Calling Ohio its new home starting next year will be the company's second airship in its all-new fleet of NT Zeppelin models being constructed by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Germany.

The West Coast tour for "Spirit of America" began June 2 in Santa Maria, Calif., before stops in Livermore and Arcata. Goodyear is offering rides during the tour to media representatives and to customers such as tire dealers, trucking fleet workers and original-equipment suppliers. Rides on Goodyear blimps are by invitation only.

On Sunday, the blimp and its 21-member crew, which includes four pilots, will move on to Shelton, Wash., where it will stay through June 22, in a trip that culminates with four days of helping Fox Sports broadcast the U.S. Open golf championship at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, Wash.

The blimp will then head south and finish its tour June 24-28 in Sacramento, where it will help Fox Sports televise the U.S. Senior Open golf tournament at Del Paso Country Club.

Goodyear blimps have been providing televised aerial views - such as during Thursday night's NBA Finals clash between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors - since the 1955 Rose Parade and that year's Rose Bowl between USC and Ohio State.

Laverty, who got her pilot's license at 18, now lives in Long Beach, Calif., and has flown "Spirit of America" during Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers basketball games; Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe awards; and even an Oregon-Stanford football game in the Bay Area.

And, yes, she was not shy about rooting for her home-state Ducks from high above.

"I go where the blimp goes, but I can still have my opinions," Laverty jokes.

She traces her desire to become a pilot to her first plane flight, when she was 13 or 14 and her parents, Randy and Terry Laverty of Toledo, took her to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

"Everything was new," Laverty recalls. "And I decided I wanted to travel. And how would I do that? Be a pilot."

Goodyear has another female pilot, Kristen Arambula, 33, also of Long Beach, who is part of this month's tour.

The only other known female blimp pilot in the world, according to Goodyear, is Kate Board, an Englishwoman who flies for Zeppelin NT in Germany.

Laverty moved to San Diego after high school and earned her pilot's license within months, then became a certified flight instructor training at American Flyers in Santa Monica.

After a couple of years of teaching others, she became a charter pilot for Air Excursions in Juneau for about eight months, then heard there were some openings with Goodyear.

Laverty on Thursday shared the blimp's six-seat gondola with her 85-year-old grandfather riding shotgun and her grandmother, 83, who was tucked in the far back right next to Thomas Lo Sciuto, operations manager at Lawrence Air Service. There was also room for a Register-Guard reporter and photographer.

Asked while flying whether she prefers blimps or planes, Laverty said: "Oh, that's too hard to choose. I like them both for different reasons."

One of the perks of being a Goodyear blimp pilot, Laverty says, is being able to take the airship for personal rides.

"Bring it back in three hours," Laverty's been told before cruising the skies of Los Angeles. "I don't think there's any other job in aviation that just let's you go have fun."

The hardest thing about flying a blimp?

"There's no bathroom on board," Laverty says, mentioning that 11-hour flight from Arcata to Eugene. "That's pretty tough."

Once a ground crew of 12 to 15 has helped lift you into the air, driving a blimp is a matter of steering a mahogany elevator wheel that sits on the ground to the pilot's right. That controls the blimp's pitch.

Laverty demonstrates by raising the blimp's nose high into the air before dropping it down low.

Rudder pedals controlled with the feet steer the blimp left or right.

"What do you think, Grandpa? Pretty cool?" Laverty asks Jerry Dordan.

"Yup," he says.

"Did you guys bring a camera?" she asks.

"I brought one, but I left it in the car," he says.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG. Email mark.baker@registerguard.com.
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Title Annotation:Living Here; Former Oregonian Taylor Laverty is one of only three female blimp fliers in the world
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 12, 2015
Words:1029
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