Much is inherently ridiculous about the notion of a flying cucumber, and yet such concerns did little to deter Hendrick’s, the decidedly unusual Scotland-based gin, from conceiving just such a thing to loose upon the nation’s skies. That’s just how Hendrick’s rolls.
“Just as we applied the taste of CUCUMBER to GIN,” the Hendrick’s literature boasted in typical circus-sideshow fashion, “we are now applying the CUCUMBER’S AERODYNAMIC SHAPE to FLIGHT.”
This weekend, the marvelous X-111 Flying Cucumber Airship found its way to Houston’s Ellington Field, a military and public airport on the city’s periphery, where members of the cocktail literati were afforded this most peculiar form of transport.
Arriving by Hendrick’s shuttle from a safe measure beyond, we intrepid travelers were deposited on the field at a pop-up parlor echoing Hendrick’s’ old-timey vibe with vintage furniture, trunks and an antique automobile with a pullout bar.
But there could be no doubt that it was the 130-foot dirigible in the distance that had captured our fascination. Cleverly wrapped in dark green vinyl to recall the familiar produce that is one of gin’s besties, it sported a single eye, the symbol of Hendrick’s Gin’s so-called Society of the Unusual.
Approaching storm clouds offered an air of adventure as well as a good amount of wind, requiring the blimp to be tethered by the nose to a large mast, lest it be disastrously swept away. I could only imagine that, should the craft tragically go down during my ride, that at least my obituary would be mildly hilarious.
Meanwhile, a Hendrick’s-attired crew attended urgently to the airship, wresting it into position with ropes and sheer brute strength as we took turns being ushered in groups of one to three into the surprisingly small cab.
I was lucky enough to ride alone with pilot Cesar Mendez, a Kerrville native who splits cucumber-flying duties with fellow pilot Charlie Smith. Theirs is a rare skill indeed: “There’s actually more astronauts in the world than people who can fly these things,” said Jim Ryan, Hendrick’s Gin’s U.S. brand ambassador.
A wave of Mendez’s hand and the crew freed the ropes from their mighty grips, and off we sailed into the heavens. A pair of wheels to either side of him controlled our lift and descent, while pedals, or rudders, at his feet controlled direction.
Our ascent was casual and, as Hendrick’s would put it, civilized, a series of plodding front-to-back tilts that gradually took us up and forward, like a great whale rising from its oceanic depths. “We’re slow and low,” Mendez said. “We’re never really in a hurry.”
The airfield and its surrounding greenbelts and neighborhoods opened up before us. Within a few minutes, we had reached our comfort zone of 1,000 feet, a height that not only allows those on the ground to take in the airship’s signature artwork but keeps the flying cucumber safely away from other air traffic or flying produce.
It was about this time that I remembered that I was terrified of heights. The fact that I was next to an open window from which my cell phone could easily spill until it fell, fell, fell indistinguishably to the ground 80 stories below, was no help, nor were the cab’s forward tilts that practically shoved my altitudinous predicament in my face.
Yes, I was in a real pickle. I’m not gonna lie: My hands had gone clammy and my heart was racing. I did what I normally do in such situations: I went into reporter mode, tossing a few questions at the Mendez and focusing on jotting down the answers until I realized that in actuality, the 35-mph ride was remarkably smooth. And enjoyable, too, despite the lack of beverage service, or more to the point, gin-and-tonic service.
Before long we were moving in for our landing as the crack Hendrick’s crew lined up in inverted-V formation, prepared to haul us home and toward welcome refreshment.
Houston was the fourth stop on the cucumber’s 13-city tour that includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, New York and Chicago. Next would be South Florida. Dallas had originally been on Hendrick’s’ schedule but unfortunately had to be scrubbed because of inclement weather.
“Everything is susceptible to weather conditions,” Mendez said. “That’s just part of the experience of flying in a cucumber.”