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MetLife blimp pilot gets unusual view of U.S. Open

Of the tens of thousands on scene to watch this week's U.S. Open, Jeff Capek will share the most unusual vantage point.

While others watch from ground level at the Black Course, Capek will be looking down 1,500 to 2,000 feet from the pilot's seat of a MetLife blimp.

The 36-year-old Floridian is one of two pilots for Snoopy One, a blimp leased by the insurance company that will provide live TV footage for NBC and ESPN starting Thursday.

On a test run last week, Capek made the trip from Republic Airport in East Farmingdale to Bethpage State Park in four minutes. Moving through scattered low-lying clouds, he circled to a panorama of emerald fairways and putting greens lined by gleaming white hospitality tents and beige sand traps that look like jigsaw puzzle pieces from above. Spectators in the stands or walking along the fairways looked like multicolored ants from 1,500 feet.

During tournament play, Capek, who has been flying blimps for 10 years and worked two previous U.S. Opens, moves from hole to hole as instructed by a director on the ground.

"If you're at 2,000 feet, you can almost see the entire course," Capek said, but the players can't hear the blimp's twin engines. "We move around constantly," he said. The blimp with a pilot and freelance camera operator onboard - "that's all the weight we can handle" - will be flying over the course from 10 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday with a possible short midday trip back to the airport to switch pilots and refuel. The weekend days are shorter with no break.

"Our camera guy, Bob Mikkelson, who owns a company called Winged Vision, has been doing this for 25 years and can follow a golf ball from 2,000 feet up," the pilot said. "We have to have the blimp in position, which means either behind the tee or out by the green and we always have to have the sun to our backs.

"I look ahead a few holes and I'm looking at which way the shadows are coming off the trees. You don't want to be on the side because it's harder to watch the ball."

At work over the course, Capek, a golfer himself, who says he's "a better than average weekend hacker," said "I'm busy flying but I am able to watch at the same time." But he added that "you really can't follow the action from 2,000 feet with the naked eye so I just keep an eye on the monitor" that shows what Mikkelson is filming.

Capek may watch some of the tournament from the ground at Bethpage but prefers his roost in Snoopy One.

"I don't get tired of it," he said. "Coming to work is fun."

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