After the Hindenburg debacle, Zeppelins largely disappeared from the skies... until recently, when the Zeppelin Company was reconstituted to begin building rigid-framed airships for use by sightseeing tour operators. Last weekend, the first US-based Zeppelin arrived at it's new home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and yesterday Telstar Logistics was invited to go for a quick test flight.
Operated by a startup called Airship Ventures, the Zeppelin NT will be based out of Moffett Field, Calfornia -- a fitting home, as Moffett was built by the US Navy during the 1920s to serve as a base for military dirigibles.
The new Zeppelins are filled with the inert helium instead of highly flammable hydrogen, they're only about one-quarter the size of than the old giants, and they're equipped with modern technology and avionics. Power is delivered by three Lycoming engines that put out around 200 horsepower each, and the airship frame is constructed from a combination of of aluminum and carbon fiber.
Boarding an airship is not at all like boarding a conventional aircraft, because an airship doesn't sit still; it tends to bob and sway as the wind blows the big balloon around. As a result, climbing on board the Zeppelin is a bit like stepping from a stable dock onto a boat that's rocking on a gentle sea.
The cabin is airy, spacious, and surprisingly quiet, so it's easy to forget that you're in an aircraft at all. Once aloft, the most essential aspect of an airship's sightseeing appeal soon became obvious: slowness. Even when in motion, the Zeppelin NT felt like it was hovering, so taking in the sights was very relaxing — especially from the big rear window near the loveseat. How's this for a view?
Landing was much the same -- a graceful cruise to a lower altitude that was pretty much elevator-like in its smoothness.
Indeed, for regular passengers, the most jarring aspect of the experience may well be the price: Airship Ventures will charge $536 per passenger per hour of flight. That's steep, to be sure, but on an hourly basis the fee is comparable to that of conventional helicopter tours. Plus you get the added satisfaction of being able to brag to your friends that you've flown on a Zeppelin.
If you can't swing it, however, we took lots of photos so you can at least get a taste of travel by airship. It's the wave of the future, you know...
Aloft in a Zeppelin (Flickr photoset by Telstar Logistics)
Airship Ventures (Company website)
(IMAGES: All photos by Telstar Logistics)