This dirigible has got it
We are standing in the sky, 1,200 feet above Goat Rock, where the Russian River meets the ocean, sipping champagne and ogling the late afternoon sky.
We are not hovering, as in a helicopter or hot-air balloon. We are stable and stationary, in the Airship Eureka, looking out through panoramic windows at a vista that stretches from the High Sierra to the Pacific horizon, enjoying the view as if from a high-rise terrace.
We are, in fact, parked.
A gentle breeze wafts in through a pair of sliding windows and freshens the gondola. Twelve comfortable passenger seats line the walls but everyone seems to be standing, surrounded by a light hum of happy conversation.
Everyone, that is, but the young couple perched romantically on a loveseat at the stern, that borders the back wall beneath a wraparound window through which the entire sweep of the Sonoma coast unfolds into the northern distance.
There are very few words that can capture this experience, but genteel and civilized are two of them. Somehow, childhood memories come to mind of the Disney film version of Jules Verne’s book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which Captain Nemo entertains a captive audience in the plush environs of a lavish stateroom aboard the submersible ship Nautilus.
Except, of course, we are far above the sea, not beneath it, and we are held hostage only by our own appetites for unusual adventure. And the airship Eureka is, by anyone’s definition, an unusual form of adventure.
It is, for openers, huge. It is 246-feet long, which takes it 15 feet beyond the standard length of a Boeing 747 and 50 feet past the largest commercial blimps in the air. Put it on a football field with its tail in the end zone and the nose would be two easy first downs from the opposite goal posts.
Which brings us to the standard disclaimer: The Eureka is not a blimp. Which is not to say there aren’t some fine blimps in the world, notably those frequenting football stadiums. But blimps are glorified balloons with inflatable skins.
The Eureka is a dirigible. It has a rigid aluminum and carbon-fiber internal frame, to which the engines and gondola are attached, and it’s part of a proud, lighter-than-air bloodline that floats back to the days of the mighty Zeppelins, airships of staggering dimensions, lifted by flammable gases, that ran out of market share when the 803-foot-long, hydrogen-filled Hindenburg burst into flames as it docked at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.
The Hindenburg disaster killed 36 people and was captured on a famous newsreel, with a voice-over dubbed from Herbert Morrison’s WLS Radio report, in which he famously exclaimed, “Oh the humanity,” as he watched the flames devour the Zeppelin.
The Eureka will never suffer such a fate because, like all current airships, it is filled with inert, nonflammable helium, wrapped in a Dupont polyvinyl fluoride film called “Tedlar.”
But its roots go directly back to the Hindenburg, since both were built by the still-active Zeppelin company of Friedrichshafen, Germany, which emerged from the ruins of World War II to begin building “New Technology” (NT) airships in 1993. There are now three of these new generation Zeppelins aloft, but Eureka is the only one in America.
Its owners, Brian and Alexandra Hall, have tech backgrounds—he is an American software developer, she is a British astrophysicist—and they both grew up with aeronautical obsessions. On a 2006 business trip to Germany, Brian was invited aboard a Zeppelin NT and was instantly hooked.
It took a while to cobble together the $15 million needed to acquire Eureka, but with considerable start-up experience, some great entrepreneurial connections and participation from angel investor Esther Dyson, Airship Ventures was born, Eureka was shipped from Germany and the Halls were in the business they had always dreamed of.
Moored at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Eureka is now conducting commercial “flightseeing” tours around the Bay Area and, for the first time this fall, over Wine Country. This flight is its maiden, two-hour voyage along the path of the Russian River and down the coast to Petaluma.
We have boarded the ship at the
Sonoma County Airport north of Santa Rosa, after a preliminary briefing that includes a novel warning that the steps leading to the entrance doorway are attached to Eureka, not to the ground. Which means that, while the airship is tethered to a portable mooring mast, it can still move in a gust of wind. It is advised, therefore, to look before we leap.
One other airship boarding protocol requires that outgoing and incoming passengers must trade places one-at-a-time; if all arriving passengers got off first, the sudden buoyancy would lift the ship out of reach and require the addition of ballast.
Once we’re all on board and buckled into the aircraft seats, we witness the amazing maneuverability of a Zeppelin airship. Eureka, powered by three, 200-horsepower Lycoming engines
mounted up and back and almost out of earshot, rises vertically and smoothly, its adjustable props rotated to the vertical axis and pulling us away from the earth. We then pivot in place and follow the Russian River westward to the sea. Ninety seconds after liftoff we’re free to roam the cabin or visit the compact bathroom, which has its own private window and offers everyone onboard the unique opportunity of being airborne, on the toilet, with a view.
Moving down the coast we witness the glorious spectacle of the sun’s descent over the rim of the Pacific horizon as the western sky erupts in fire. On the way back, over Sebastopol, we pause briefly over a high school football game and watch the ant-sized players scurry over the field.
Eureka offers other elevated opportunities besides sightseeing. It is frequently used for both scientific and commercial charters, and the Halls have flown trips 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 also flown the Rose Bowl game, PGA tournaments and Laguna Seca Raceway.
Cruising at a serene 35 to 40 miles an hour (the top speed is 78), Eureka can make it to Los Angeles in eight hours or less, depending on wind. It has been on one cross-country, coast-to-coast tour that Brian Hall describes as “a cross between a traveling circus and a barnstorming tour.”
The ship can land anywhere its 37-ton, portable pylon truck can park, as long as there’s a 600-foot radius of open land. It takes a traveling crew of about 25 to staff, pilot and service Eureka, which means that sightseeing trips aren’t cheap.
But they are unique, sublime, enchanting, peaceful and a whole lot of fun. At the end of our trip everyone was grinning ear-to-ear, including Brian Hall.
You can explore your airship options by calling (650) 969-8100, or by going to airshipventures.com.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA