An airship adventure
PILOT BEN TRAVIS flies the Zeppelin Eureka along the Sonoma County coast on a jaunt Friday afternoon.
Don’t call it a blimp.
That is, perhaps, the first thing you need to know before stepping aboard the Airship Eureka. Call it a Zeppelin, because it was invented by Count Ferdinand Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin, a German who learned the nuances of balloon flight from Americans during the Civil War. And the company he founded still builds a modern variant of the original Zeppelin airship.
Blimps have a non-rigid envelop filled with a lighter than air gas. Zeppelins have a rigid interior frame, filled these days with helium. They are more maneuverable. They can rise vertically like a helicopter, turn 360 degrees in their own length, hover indefinitely, sail serenely through the sky like a yacht and land anywhere you can drive a portable, 32-ton mobile mast truck.
Zepellins are the new/old best way to travel through the air, and if you don’t believe it that’s only because you haven’t yet traveled on the Eureka. And if you do, you’ll be part of a rather exclusive club.
Moored at Moffett Field in Mountain View, the Eureka is owned by Airship Ventures, an investment company founded by software developer Brian Hall and his astrophysicist wife, Alex. Both Halls grew up with aeronautical obsessions and in 2006, Brian found himself in Germany, had a chance to fly on a Zeppelin NT, made by the Count’s original company, and he was instantly hooked.
He came back to California, where his wife was CEO of the Chabot Space & Science Center, practically babbling about Zeppelins. The dream was born, the reality took a while and, contrary to the popular myth that every Silicon Valley entrepreneur has a billion dollars under a mattress, the Halls did not have $15 million they could risk to buy a Zeppelin NT. But they did have good business sense, some great connections, and the interest of angel investor Esther Dyson to, literally, come on board.
Now they are flying high, paying the bills through a combination of commercial sight seeing flights and scientific/commercial charters.
They have flown for NASA, NOAA, SETI, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The airship is an ideal camera platform, so they have flown the Rose Bowl game, PGA tournaments and Laguna Seca Raceway.
And last weekend, for the first time, they flew commercial tours over Wine Country from the Sonoma County Airport. The 12-passenger gondola has aircraft seats that passengers are required to buckle into for the first 90 seconds of flight. After that, the temptation to stand and stare keeps most people out of their seats. Vast Plexiglas windows surround the gondola, offering a 360-degree view. Windows within the windows open to the outside, so fresh air comes in and hands and heads can go out.
Cruising at a serene 35 to 40 miles an hour, the Eureka charted a two-hour sunset cruise along the Russian River to Jenner, then down the coast past Bodega Bay to the Estero Americano and back inland to Sebastopol where the good ship hovered over a high school football game where opposing players ran back and forth like ants on the ground.
Propelled by three 200-horsepower engines that are mounted above, and to the rear, of the gondola, the Zeppelin’s motive force is remarkably quiet and never intrudes. There is all the serenity of a hot air balloon, but with infinite maneuverability and no periodic bursts of burning propane.
Champagne was served en route, toasts were made to the magic of an aeronautical technology more than 100 years old that now seems brand new, and there were ecstatic smiles on the faces of every person on board, including Brian Hall, who was grinning like a kid.
Returning to the Sonoma County Airport just as night closed in, the good ship Eureka nestled to the ground and the waiting pylon of the mobile docking platform.
Not a person on board wanted to leave, and several were talking about the prospect of an eight-hour trip down the coast to San Diego. Nothing, but the price, would stand in the way of that fantasy.
The Airship Eureka will be back at the Sonoma County Airport during the weekend of Oct. 21 to 23. You can book a trip by calling (650) 969-8100. Or go to airship ventures.com.