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Brave flying ace Snoopy patrols local skies

Snoopy, dressed as a World War I Flying Ace, took to the Pasco County skies Wednesday, but it wasn't the Red Baron he was after. A blimp that bore the beagle's picture was trying to catch the eyes of potential insurance buyers.

Snoopy One, one of two Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. blimps, has been touring the Tampa Bay area this month since its last event, the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, a company spokeswoman said.

The 130-foot-long airship has been operating out of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Although it spends most of its time cruising over sporting, news and other events and providing aerial television coverage, its calendar is empty for the rest of this month.

"When we don't have television coverage," MetLife spokeswoman Kate Niven said, "we take key markets and just fly exposure in those markets, which is why we're in Tampa (Bay) right now and we'll be going to Orlando next week and then down to Miami after that."

The blimp's next official engagement is the Royal Caribbean Golf Classic in Key Biscayne during the first week of February, she said.

Snoopy One spends the summer and fall months in the Northeast and the winter and spring months in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Snoopy Two, its sister ship, hangs out on the West Coast. Together they travel about 120,000 miles a year throughout the United States.

Snoopy One has no home base, the company's Web site says. It moves from airport to airport, where it is secured to a stationary pole erected at the landing area. The blimp swivels freely around the pole as the wind changes directions.

Traveling with the blimp are two pilots and 12 crew members, including mechanics, radio technicians, and riggers. The operation requires five ground support vehicles to move the blimp and crew from one location to the next. The ship, held aloft by 68,000 cubic feet of helium, cruises at 35 mph and tops out at 55. It carries a pilot and three passengers.

Niven said that although Snoopy One doesn't have specific events on its agenda while it's in the Bay Area, the pilots steer it toward crowds when they can be found.

"It's a billboard in the sky," she said. "We just move it where the people are and keep it there for a little bit."