Led (by a) Zeppelin
Do not call her a blimp. You can call her a Zeppelin. An airship. A dirigible. You may even call her by her proper name, Eureka. But do not call the Zeppelin NT a blimp. And that’s not because Eureka is sensitive about her size. As the road test in the April 2009 issue of Road & Track Magazine points out (Kott 2009), “At 2,200 pounds, the airship’s skeleton weighs less than a Miata.”
You will not call her a blimp because she is something quite different. A blimp relies on the pressure of internal gas to maintain its shape. If a blimp loses its shape, it also loses its aerodynamic control. The Zeppelin’s pressure envelope (the technical term for the torpedo-shaped balloon above the gondola) contains air and helium, but also has an internal, semi-rigid structure that can be flown in the event she loses her shape.
When I first spotted a Zeppelin floating serenely over San Francisco two months ago, I was sure I was hallucinating. But a bit of research that evening revealed that I hadn’t been imagining things after all. Turns out I had indeed seen an airship, operated by the nascent Airship Ventures.
According to its website, “the initial concept for Airship Ventures was the vision of an entrepreneurial husband/wife team (Brian and Alexandra Hall), who brought their love of aviation, aerospace and airships to life to create a unique, upstart company designed to bring Zeppelin airships to the skies over America for the first time in over 70 years.”
The Eureka was manufactured in Germany by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), and her maiden flight took place in Germany on May 21, 2008. She was subsequently transported from Europe to Texas aboard the deck of a container ship, and flown to her new home base at Moffett Field. Moffett Field was built by the U.S. Navy in the 1930s to house the USS Macon (a 785 foot long, 146 feet high rigid airship) and was therefore no stranger to Zeppelins. Eureka had her first commercial flight with passengers in November 2008.
My interest had been piqued since I first saw the Zeppelin hovering above San Francisco. The Disney-Pixar movie UP, which features an airship, added fuel to the fire. But there was another reason. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, I had mentored a teenager for seven years. In June 2009, Kelly’s high school graduation was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I wanted to celebrate this milestone with something symbolic, unique, and fun.
A Zeppelin flight seemed to fit that bill.
I opted for the one-hour tour of San Francisco, which flies out from Oakland airport. Our first scheduled flight was cancelled due to high winds, but for the second reserved date, Kelly a
nd I arrived at the check-in point at the Oakland Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites an hour before our flight. After a slight delay due to fog, it was time for a debriefing session to learn about safety precautions and perform security checks.
The 11 passengers (the airship seats 12) were shuttled to the landing/mooring site by van, where we lined up two by two to await the Zeppelin’s arrival. The airship floated closer, dwarfing us with her size. She is 57.5 feet tall, 64.6 feet wide, and 246.2 feet long, which is over ten feet longer than a Boeing 747. Her sides hosted an advertisement from 23andMe, a personal genetics company that helps people understand their own genetic information.
When she landed, Eureka’s engine remained running as passengers from the previous flight were “swapped” with those from our group. Passengers were boarded and de-boarded in about five minutes, which in and of itself is a phenomenal feat to anyone who flies frequently.
We were free to choose any seat, all of which have windows, and buckled up for take-off. Within minutes, we reached the cruising altitude of about 1000 feet (this was approximately 9000 feet below the altitude at which when I went skydiving in Byron a few years ago, so everything seemed quite up close and personal). We were then free to roam about the cabin. Although the airship can reach a maximum speed of 78 miles per hour, the typical cruising speed is 35 to 40 mph, which means passengers can actually take pictures from the two windows that open out (although we had been advised to hold on to our cameras and glasses). The rear of the ship also hosts a window seat, and even the bathroom has a view.
Given the size of the ship, flights are astonishingly quiet and serene. This has to do with the placement of the engines. One of the Zeppelin’s three engines is located on the tail and provides lateral stability, while the two others are mounted on the airframe far above the gondola.
We glided over the Oakland Coliseum and sparkling Lake Merritt. We cruised above the sailboats and ships dotting the Bay, and over the tourists disembarking from the ferry onto Alcatraz Island. We sailed toward the skyline of San Francisco, where the legendary Transamerica Building and Coit Tower awaited us. We caught glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge, mysterious and beautiful, under its floating cape of fog. We coasted past Marin.
But one of my favorite sights was the aerial view of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I’ve always had a particular affinity for the Bay Bridge, and it was fascinating to see the progress on the east span construction from above.
During the flight, we were free to chat with pilot Katharine (Kate) Board, who is the only female airship pilot in the world. Her fifteen years of flight experience in Europe and the States include navigating Virgin Hot Air Balloon flights. Kate shared that she enjoys all of the routes, but is particularly fond of the Monterey flight, which offers views of the coastline, and depending upon the season, migrating whales.
We also spoke with fellow passengers, many of whom were celebrating special occasions. Two of the passenger’s wives had given them the trip for their birthdays. Two couples were celebrating wedding anniversaries. One of these couples had been together many years, and when the husband explained how he had arranged the trip as a surprise for his wife, the reason for that was altogether evident.
Our sixty minutes were almost up and we had to return to earth. As we descended into Oakland, the airship’s weight was adjusted using bags of lead shot and a 180-gallon water ballast tank. The passengers for the next flight stood lined up in pairs on the ground, waiting their turn.
The flight attendant signaled when it was time for each of us to disembark. We had been warned to resist the temptation to take pictures as we stepped off the airway, as a sudden gust of wind could buck the ship. We did as told and each took five long strides away from the airway before turning to admire the aircraft.
After the flight, we returned to the hotel to receive our “flight certificates,” toast each other (“Upship!”) with sparkling apple cider and champagne, and chat excitedly about the trip.
Airship Ventures also offers other “flight-seeing tours,” such as a tour of the
Flights on the Zeppelin cost approximately $500 per person, although the company offers occasional deals, such as a companion fare (i.e., buy one ticket at full price and get the second at half price), or special offers (e.g., offers for high school graduates). The United States is, hands down, the easiest and most inexpensive place to book a tour. Only two other countries offer commercial airship rides. Germany’s Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT) has offered Zeppelin passenger rides since 2001 and is so successful that its flights are booked three months in advance. Japan’s tours, run by Nippon Airship Corporation (NAC), cost about three times that of a flight in California.
The Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven is not inexpensive, and unless you’re one of the few lucky souls who isn’t strapped for cash these days, probably best reserved for special celebrations. But for that momentous occasion in which levity, a fresh perspective, and a renewed appreciation for the beauty that is California are needed, it is a fabulous experience.