ANCHORAGE — It's raining Carrs/Safeway gift cards at the Great Alaska Shootout this week at Sullivan Arena.
An eight-foot by eight-foot blimp that looks like a giant basketball is carrying gift cards ranging from $5 to $100 and making random drops during half-time of some of the basketball games.
"Somebody is getting lucky," said Nico Fearn, an operations coordinator with SportsOne, a public relations company behind much of the Shootout marketing.
Fearn, 23, has only been with the Portland, Ore., company for a couple of months. On the Thursday prior to the Shootout, the custom-made orange blimp with a Carrs/Safeway logo was delivered to his office in Portland.
"It was given to me as the most special piece of our marketing for this event," Fearn said. "They made this for this event."
The problem was, Fearn's test flight didn't go so well.
"Basketballs aren't supposed to fly," he said.
So, before he made his first trip to Alaska, he made some calls around Anchorage to see if anyone here knew how to fly a remote control basketball.
A call to a local hobby shop put him in touch with Mike Podolak, a 37-year-old electrical project manager whose primary hobby is flying remote control airplanes.
"I call this guy our savior," Fearn said.
Podolak has years of experience flying all sorts of remote control aircraft and is even the vice president of a local non-profit organization called Frontier Fun Flyers.
"We're just a fun bunch of RC nerds," he said.
Flying a basketball turned out to be a little tougher than Podolak imagined, but he manages to navigate the turbulent airspace of Sullivan Arena.
"It's kind of like driving a barge up a river," Podolak said. "There are subtle currents in here."
Look at some of the flags and banners hanging in Sullivan Arena and their movement is evidence of the currents Podolak talked about. He uses a standard remote control device with two thumb sticks. The right stick turns the blimp left and right. The left stick is used for forward propulsion and the dropping of the gift cards, which has turned out to be one of the trickiest parts of the operation.
A wire at the bottom of the blimp holds a handful of gift cards and the slightest sideways movement of the left thumb stick is enough to release two or three.
From his perch on the Mezzanine, Podolak can't be certain how many cards he drops at one time, but he tries to spread them out as much as he can across the arena.
The blimp is scheduled for flights during halftime of Saturday's 2 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. games. For those who aren't lucky enough to be under the blimp at the right time, Fearn is also walking around and handing out gift cards to other lucky fans.
The blimp has been a big hit this week, especially with kids, many of which run around chasing the blimp.
"It's been something that started as our question mark and it's turned into one of our biggest successes," Fearn said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.