Airship pilot Michael Nerandzic a hero

By Angela Thompson
Updated November 5 2012 - 3:09pm, first published June 14 2011 - 12:57am
Mike Nerandzic with his wife, Lyndy.
Flying over the main stadium at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Mike Nerandzic flying over Wollongong in 1996 in the Whitman's Airship.


Mike Nerandzic’s wife Lyndy in his study, which is full of memorabilia reflecting his colourful working life. Picture: DAVE TEASE

The remains of Balgownie man Michael Nerandzic have been recovered from wreckage of an incinerated blimp in Germany as investigations into the accident continue.The veteran pilot is being hailed a hero for ordering his three passengers to safety before flames consumed the airship's gondola on Sunday.The drop in weight as the passengers disembarked is believed to have caused the burning craft to shoot into the sky still carrying Mr Nerandzic, who would have turned 53 today.The phone rang hot with condolences yesterday at the home he shared with wife Lyndy.Upstairs, his study hinted at the colourful working life that took him to the best seat in the house for five Olympic Games.In 1988, in Seoul, his passengers were the Korean CIA and police carrying out surveillance work.He clocked up more than 12,300 hours in the air and worked in 24 countries, souveniring rows of promotional caps and access passes for the study walls.A large framed broadsheet shows a blimp he piloted over Sydney Harbour on Australia Day in 1988, a spectacular spread of ships laid out below.Opposite, a collection of photos captures billionaire Richard Branson strapped in waterskis, preparing to be towed by an airship with Mr Nerandzic at the throttle."He was a character. He was larger than life. He was so, so generous," Mrs Nerandzic said."When they told me what he had done for the passengers it didn't surprise me one little bit."I was just so glad they have retrieved his body. The company's going to arrange for his body to be flown back to Australia and after that I haven't thought any further."I just spoke to him the night before and we arranged that I would go over there in July."The Nerandzics spent the first 10 years of their marriage living out of hotel rooms overseas before settling in the Illawarra."He would be in the airship and I'd be in the car with all of our worldly goods in the trailer," Mrs Nerandzic said."When he used to fly fixed-wing I worried, but he always used to say, 'what's going to happen with an airship'?"Mr Nerandzic was returning three passengers to Reichelsheim Airfield, in Oberursel, on Sunday evening when he got into difficulty.He was flying the Spirit of Safety I, one of two airships leased by Goodyear from Lightship Europe for marketing flights throughout Europe between March until October.On board were two news crew from RTL television and Joachim Storch, a photographer from Germany's Bild newspaper.Mr Storch reported smelling petrol and seeing flames coming from the back of the Gondola, where the engines are positioned.The airship came about 2m above the ground and the passengers jumped off at Mr Nerandzic's encouragement.The Mercury understands eight members of the ground crew were waiting with ballast bags to weigh the craft to the ground, but they were too far away.Mr Storch reported looking on from the runway as the blimp went up again."I heard the screams of the pilot - it was terrible," he said.The airship reached a height of about 50m before it came down in a black column of smoke witnessed 20km away.According to the Goodyear website, the Spirit of Safety airships were specially built by American Blimp Corporation to a length of 39m - about 20m shorter than models operating in the United States and with engines less than half as powerful.Unlike the German zeppelins of 50 years ago, the Goodyear blimps are filled with non-flammable helium. A statement issued by The Lightship Group said the identical craft had been grounded "until further notice"."First and foremost, our thoughts are with the family and friends of the crew members, and also with our colleagues and the passengers involved with the airship tour in Germany," the statement continued.Mr Nerandzic was The Lightship Group's director of operations in Europe, Asia and Australia until April 2009.In an interview with The Australian newspaper in 2001 he spoke about his passion for airships and the "lifestyle I love"."I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I've just loved every day," he said.