Story by Annika Grassl
Photo by Baron Cao
“Jethro has a rule that he doesn’t have partners or do partnerships, but he broke his own rule when he became a strong partner of Drake University and Drake athletics. Jethro loves the Bulldogs. As a sign of his affection, he had a large blimp built with his name and the Drake Bulldog logo on it. The blimp flies around inside the arena for all Drake sporting activities and drops coupons on the hungry students and fans,” according to the Jethro’s BBQ website.
James Lewis, a member of the Game Operations Personnel, flies the blimp and said it was made by a company in Florida, Southern Balloon Works.
The blimp is made of mylar, which is the same material balloons at a party store are made of, and filled with helium.
Lewis, along with Eric Stall, has flown the blimp at every basketball game since 1995.
“The physical blimp has not changed much since we began to fly it, although other members of our organization flew it before we did,” Lewis said. “People weren’t flying it continuously until Eric and I took over in 1995.”
The pair is successful at keeping the decades-old blimp in the air.
“(The blimp crashes) very rarely. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. The only time it would crash is if there is an equipment problem, and it hasn’t crashed lately,” Lewis said.
The blimp advertises for sponsors and acts as a marketing tool for Drake.
The marketing department arranges for a variety of prizes to fall from the blimp, including hats, T-shirts and advertising merchandise.
“(Driving the blimp is) not hard to do, but you have to know how to do it. (It) takes some training. You need some knowledge about flying radio-controlled aircraft. You have to stay above crowd but below air currents in (the) ceiling,” Lewis said.
The challenge comes from the fact that the two men have to fly the zeppelin in tandem while using separate joystick controllers.
The blimp is four feet in diameter and 12 feet long, putting around at about 1-2 miles per hour with power from two rectangular battery packs of equal size.
“Since the primary purpose of the blimp is advertising, flying slowly over the crowd is what we need to do in order for people to read the advertisements and collect coupons,” Lewis said.
First-year public relations and international relations double major Kelly Marble enjoys the blimp.
“I think it’s a fun way for them (Drake University and the athletic department) to engage the crowd,” Marble said.