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If you're trying to attract investors for your startup company, here's a piece of advice - don't say the word blimp.
Nancy Cohen from member station WNPR learned that by hanging out with an inventor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
NANCY COHEN: It's daybreak on a dew-soaked farm field. And a strange looking aircraft is joining the birds in flight.
Mr. DAN NACHBAR (Inventor): I got up into the breeze, not on purpose.
COHEN: Dan Nachbar is calling down from the pilot seat of 100-foot experimental blimp.
Mr. NACHBAR: I'm going to head back and switch tags.
COHEN: The yellow and black striped blimp has a playful look to it, like the "Yellow Submarine" fused with "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." But why invent a new kind of blimp?
Nachbar is a former computer scientist. He used to be a nerdy kid who fiddled and built things. When he was 13, he even called Goodyear to find out what it took to become a blimp pilot. That dream came back to him during a long flight in a small plane.
Mr. NACHBAR: The noise in the aircraft was really horrible, but the view was really terrific. And so I needed to come up with some way to make it possible to get the view without the noise.
COHEN: Five years and a dozen prototypes later, Nachbar has come up with a view that's really something. The pilot is strapped into an old Toyota Camry seat bolted to a slab of wood. This cabin, if you can call it that, is suspended by steel cables beneath the blimp.
Mr. NACHBAR: There are no walls, there's no windshield. You're very much out in the open and quite on purpose. We wanted flying in this aircraft to feel unlike any other aircraft.
COHEN: And it does, according to Mike Kuehlmuss, an airplane mechanic who built the blimp with Nachbar.
Mr. MIKE KUEHLMUSS (Airplane Mechanic): Hold that. Try again, full throttle. The neat part about this is like, basically, it will stay in one spot. It just stay there and kind of hover there.
COHEN: Kuehlmuss says most blimp steer like a big cruise ship in a lumbering kind of way. But the motor mounted on the tail pivots this blimp just like the motor on the back of a small boat.
Mr. KUEHLMUSS: It's so nice to just doodle around and turn it this way, turn it that way. It's a lot like a helicopter without all the commotion of air blowing everywhere, dirts blowing everywhere - none of this.
COHEN: Unlike many blimps, this one isn't filled with helium but with hot air. Helium is a lot more costly. But what's really different is its structure. Long, flexible, aluminum tubes run the length of the ship. They open and fold like an umbrella.
Mr. NACHBAR: We didn't invent the tension membrane structure, but we are the first ones to use it on a blimp.
COHEN: Inventing is one thing. Finding investors is another.
Mr. NACHBAR: When you call up an investor and ask them to invest in a blimp company, the only real question is whether they start laughing before or after they hang up the phone.
COHEN: The blimp cost half a million dollars to build. Investors are mostly family and friends. But Nachbar is confident there's money to be made by putting advertising on the side of the blimp. And he hopes to solve what's known as the last mile problem: moving big things a short distance, like pipelines.
Mr. NACHBAR: You can build them at the factory and then transfer them by barge fairly close to where they want to go. But getting them that last few miles, you can't do it because they don't fit down the road.
COHEN: For Mike Kuehlmuss, solving such problems is like playing in the sandbox.
Mr. KUEHLMUSS: It's always back to what if we could do that, and then you want to know whether you can, and there's a challenge to do it.
(Soundbite of air blowing)
COHEN: Kuehlmuss is blasting hot air inside the blimp and straps himself in, ready for takeoff. At first, he flies just a few feet off the ground, low enough to converse.
Mr. KUEHLMUSS: Pick a tree.
COHEN: How about that one over there?
Mr. KUEHLMUSS: Okay. We can do that one. All right.
COHEN: Kuehlmuss turns the blimp around and heads towards the top of a maple tree. He hovers for a moment and then settles like a bird, roosting in the canopy.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen.
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