On the Good Ship
● By Jon Lewis
story: Jon Lewis photos: Brent Van Auken
THE FLYING ZEPPELIN, AIRSHIP EUEKA, LANDS IN REDDING
A bit of romance floated into the North State the other day, bringing with it a glimpse back to the time when luxury travel was as much about the journey as it was the destination. So what if this “bit” of romance is big enough to blot out the sun? That’s just part of the fun of traveling in a bona fide airship, a helium-filled, light-as-a-feather aircraft that just happens to be 246 feet long (some 15 feet longer than a Boeing 747). A smallish but enthusiastic crowd of onlookers assembled along the edges of the Redding Municipal Airport tarmac to ooh and ahh as the Eureka—the only commercial airship in the United States and one of two Zeppelins flying in the world—made its stately arrival in mid-August.
The Eureka is the pride and joy of Airship Ventures, a husband-and-wife team of self-described “aviation geeks” who chose Redding as the launching pad for a Pacific Northwest tour that included Oregon stopovers in Medford, Salem and Portland before joining a collection of historic aircraft for a two-week stay at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. In Redding, 45-minute “flight”-seeing tours were offered at $375 a seat, with a limited number of 50 percent discounts when a second ticket was purchased. The Eureka is tentatively scheduled to return to Redding on Sept. 11-12. Additional flights are to be based on demand and weather conditions. For current information, visit airshipventures.com.
Home for the Eureka is Moffett Field, a former Naval air base south of San Francisco now operated by NASA, where the airship routinely offers tours of the Bay Area, Napa Valley and Monterey Bay. Alexandra “Alex” Hall, CEO of Airship Ventures, says bringing the Eureka north is a chance to spread some airship excitement to other communities in a modern-day form of barnstorming. Since the last commercial passenger airship stopped operating in 1937, it’s pretty easy to generate some enthusiasm when a massive Zeppelin comes to town. Is the era of stately airship travel back? “I’d like to think so,” says Hall. “Back when it was all about the journey and there was time to think about the landscape and a way to engage in communities.” Hall’s excitement for aviation started when she was a child in Bedford, England, growing up near the Cardington Airship Hangars and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. Brian Hall, her future husband, spent summers as a youth in upstate New York near an aerospace museum and developed a fascination with World War I-era aviation. In 2006, Brian Hall was attending a software conference in Cologne, Germany, when he had the opportunity to ride in a Zeppelin NT (one of the first manufactured by the Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik firm). He stepped out of the gondola convinced he had to bring airship travel back to the United States. In 2007, the Halls married and founded Airship Ventures. In 2008, they took delivery of the Eureka. (The airship crossed the Atlantic on a large cargo ship and was flown from Beaumont, Texas, to its new hangar at Moffett Field.
By the fall of 2008, passengers were being treated to spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and other Bay Area landmarks.
And, yes, there’s a difference between an airship and the more common blimp that’s seen overhead at golf tournaments and other sporting events. An airship has an internal rigid frame, which allows engines to be located on the hull and at the tail end, far enough away from the gondola to substantially reduce noise and vibration. (Blimps do not have an internal frame so engines are mounted on the gondola.)
The net result is a surprisingly comfortable ride in a cabin that gives up to 12 passengers panoramic views through large windows. There’s even a window in the onboard restroom.
Cruising along at an altitude of 1,200 feet and at a leisurely pace of 35 mph, there certainly is time to take in the scenery. During a brief introductory flight for local media, the Eureka provided reporters and photographers with stunning views of landmarks like the Sundial Bridge and the Sacramento River, whose blue-green waters shimmered in the afternoon sun as they made the swooping 90-degree turn through the heart of Redding.
The Eureka was piloted by Capt. Jim Dexter, whose 30-plus years of airship experience were evident as he deftly controlled the surprisingly nimble Eureka. Oliver Jaeger of Germany was the co-pilot.
The Zeppelin NT is filled with inert, non-flammable helium and powered by three 200-horsepower engines that can rotate to allow for vertical takeoffs and landings as well as hovering.