Looking up

Sometimes I look up on a rare clear day in a late Seattle winter and half expect to see the Goodyear blimp. I never do - it winters in Los Angeles - but the fact that I look up and even think of it is a sure sign of spring. And it keeps me going.

I never remember exactly when I last saw it - sometimes years must pass between sightings - yet it always looks familiar and satisfying as it hovers in the distance. Gray and roundish but not round, sleek but not slick, it makes complicated things disappear: things like word processors and the metric system and pumping my own gas and the great quiche debate and poised rockets with nuclear warheads.

The Montgolfier brothers launched the first successful lighter-than-air ship in the Western world. It was made of paper and filled with hot air, and it floated for 10 minutes over the French countryside above the village of Annonay on June 5, 1783. After that, ballooning became the rage. And all sorts of things were launched over the next few years, including that animal now famous for having at least some of the right stuff, a monkey.

Last summer I saw the blimp out of my large kitchen window, hovering over Lake Washington with the Cascade Mountains in the background. It was a friendly sight.

I stared for a while and scenarios came to mind, jokes, you might say: a blimp peeking in the window at a Garboesque figure who is saying, ''I vant to be alone''; a little boy sitting on the front porch blowing soap bubbles, one of which is the blimp. And so forth.

Then I picked up the telephone book and discovered a number for Goodyear Aerospace. Two evenings later, I headed north about 10 miles out of Seattle to Paine Field to talk to some of the crew of the blimp named Columbia, which was spending a week in the area with its permanent, traveling staff of five pilots, 16 crew, a public relations manager, and their wives and children.

In the small waiting room of the flight service center I learned that the Columbia, the Western blimp, is one of a family of four blimps and permanently based in Los Angeles. The three others are the America, based in Houston; the Enterprise, based in Pompano Beach, Fla.; and the Europe, based north of Rome. Originally thought of as aerial yachts by the late Goodyear executive P. W. Litchfield, the blimps are always named after winners of the America's Cup race.

In addition, I learned that the blimp travels at an altitude of 1,000 to 3, 000 feet, though it can go as high as 10,000 feet, and it cruises at 35 m.p.h., though it can go as fast as 50 m.p.h. The blimps log almost 200,000 miles a year in Europe and the United States. The helium inside the balloon is purified twice a year.

I found that the word blimp, usually associated with things cumbersome in size and shape, actually comes from a sound, a quiet sound, in fact. In 1915, Lt. A. D. Cunningham of the British Royal Navy Air Service jabbed his thumb into the resilient gas bag of His Majesty's Airship SS-12. He smiled at the sound he heard as he pulled his thumb back out and said, ''Blimp!'' in imitation.

Finally I was told that the gondola holds only six passengers plus the pilot, and that rides - usually limited to five or six per day - are arranged months in advance by the main office. It was suggested, however, that I at least walk out to the airstrip for a closer look while the Columbia landed and took off with its last passenger load for the evening. I did.

Dark pointed evergreen surrounded the landing strip and reached into a fading orange-and-pink sky. The warm wind gusted slightly. One hundred yards away across the field six passengers and eight crew members waited for the Columbia.

First I heard it - a thick whir, the sound of large, soft truck tires on a grated bridge - and then I saw it.

It hovered for a moment and then headed purposefully and rather delicately, I thought, considering its immensity, toward the landing area. Two long, thick ropes trailing much like walrus whiskers touched down first and were grabbed by the crew, who pulled the Columbia to the ground. It hesitated at first, bobbed back into the air - rather playfully, I thought - and then landed. Six got out, six got in, and I watched it take off again in a matter of minutes.

The Columbia rose at a steep angle, perhaps as much as 45 degrees, slowly and efficiently, a homey sort of creature, a huge bachelor uncle with a big red nose whom everyone likes to have over for holiday dinners. The thin gray skin sighed and shuddered. The Columbia straightened out, cleared the trees handily, and floated out of sight. Its passing, like its appearance, commanded a moment of silence.

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