Hey, who wants to fly into inner outer space for a few minutes for $200,000 and feel that great 8g rush on reentry? Humm…no not me. Well, how about drifting at a thousand feet over your neighborhood? Or over the ocean where you might see great whites and even shipwrecks in the shallows. Cruise past the Golden Gate Bridge and spot sailboats racing on a broad reach as you sail overhead. This is the effect from the Zeppelin Eureka, a dirigible based at Moffett Field.

How in the heck did this come to pass? Well you can credit Brian Hall and his wife Alexandra. Alex is the past director of the Chabot Space and Science Center and Brian founded and still has the helm of the successful software firm Mark/Space. One ride aboard the Zeppelin NT in Germany made Brian a believer. (from their website) “Designed exclusively for passenger operations, the Zeppelin NT (“New Technology”) is unlike any other airship in the world. Engineered with the best in German technology, the airship’s precise handling, and quiet, spacious cabin with oversized windows and restroom were designed for luxurious passenger operations. Realizing that there was no experience like this, and no airship technology like this in the U.S., Brian immediately embarked on his next business venture.” Alex grew up in England near the dirigible hangers at Cardington and all her life she wanted to be an astronaut. She would have made a good one but it turned out she wasn’t quit tall enough so with the airship she says she has had to have an altitude adjustment.

California has a deep history of lighter than air because it was at Moffett filed that the Airship Macon was based in the huge Hanger Number 1, which is still there. In the 1930’s airships represented the wave of the future and the people of Sunnyvale voted to sell the land that is Moffett to the federal government for $1 if they would locate the ship there. The program was not a success but the tiny air station grew and around it prospered early avionics firms such as Fairchild Raytheon and Varian. It can be contended that one of the reasons we have Silicon Valley as we know it today is because of the Macon program.
The Eureka is a 246 long dirigible. It is made by the Zeppelin Luftschifftechnika 100+ year old firm that has been involved with aircraft and engine manufacturing for over a century. It is true that the Hindenburg was a Zeppelin but it used flammable hydrogen for lift where modern ships use inert helium. What makes it a dirigible is the internal skeleton as opposed to a blimp that is a big balloon. The skeleton allows the envelop to hold a very low pressure, just over 1 psi so if (a nearly impossible to conceive of) breech the helium would take hours to escape. The ride in this ship is similar to a hot air balloon but one you can drive at up to 70 mph and basically cruse where you wish.

I went recently with a group of friends and it was nothing short of magical. It is equal parts modern aviation with 1930’s pizzazz yielding a singular experience so visceral as to make it hard to describe. As you coast over the land it is staggering to see the amount of stuff we have built and when you coast over the estates from Saratoga to Woodside the grandeur is awe inspiring. You see dogs running for Frisbees, countless folks waving and lines of cars and rapid transit snaking in all directions. Over the mountains you see running deer and hikers stopping to look up at you. Over the ocean you see the silt roiling down from the creeks and if you are lucky enough to go over Anno Nuevo you see the Elephant seals in the multitude looking at you in curious wonder. One of life’s great thrills is to gaze down upon the fabled Golden Gate and see the majesty and unique character of San Francisco. You can see clearly the cable cars and the vital pulse of the city. But mostly you see folks looking up wishing they were where you are.

It isn’t all just sightseeing with the folks at Airship Ventures. In fact this summer there is a whale survey planned for the San Juan Islands around Seattle. The ship will make the first trip of a Zeppelin from Southern California to Canada. Alex and Brian have the youthful exuberance of the barnstormers who popularized aviation a hundred years ago (but with an appropriate eye toward safety). So they want to make it interesting by taking voyages to the fun places like Catalina and Hearst Castle.

The ship will be spending some time in the LA area each month in the first half of 2010, and will back here otherwise. You can even buy a ticket for that very special longer cruise along the coast – 8 hours to or from LA isn’t fast, but route 1 from the air must be tremendous fun!

In spite of the recession they have been getting solid bookings, including many private charters for parties, corporate events, and even a wedding! I had seen the ship flying around for several months before going aboard. I now wonder why I waited because I see the Bay Area in a whole new way; a more intimate and grander place.

Don’t think you’ll get around to it sometime or when you finally decide to fly there might be a year long waiting list like they have in Germany! You need to have this on your New Years Resolution list! My advice is go to the website airshipventures.com and book now.