Zeppelin taking to the skies over Bay Area George Raine | 29-Oct-2008
Zeppelin taking to the skies over Bay Area George Raine, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
More... (10-27) 18:00 PDT -- Flying in the world's largest airship is a very quiet, smooth-as-silk experience. The six-cylinder aircraft engines hum unobtrusively, allowing the ship's 12 passengers to chat easily among themselves and the crew in the narrow gondola. Grand vistas can be seen through large windows, some of which can be opened.
That was the view on Monday from Moffett Field, where a new company called Airship Ventures cranked up its marketing machine to introduce zeppelin rides in the United States after a 71-year hiatus brought on by the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, the onset of World War II and the eclipse of ocean liner-in-the-sky airships by airplanes.
Airship Ventures takes off on Friday with four flights from the Mountain View airfield. It's not for everyone: A one-hour flight from either Moffett or Oakland International Airport is $495 per person, and two hours is $950. The company will start using Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport next month, where a one-hour Wine Country ticket is $525 and two hours $975.
It is, however, a terrific ride. For 30 minutes, a group of media members cruised at 1,350 feet and 34 knots with Katharine Board - the only female zeppelin pilot in the world - at the controls.
The zeppelin lands on a dime, and the lift comes from lighter-than-air helium. This is no blimp. Zeppelins have a light, rigid metal and carbon fiber framework that is covered with a synthetic canvas hull - just waiting to be adorned with your company logo for yet another fee. Blimps do not have internal rigid frames.
Alas, with the gloomy haze shrouding the Bay Area and visibility of no more than 2 1/2 miles, passengers on the flight had to use their imaginations about the picturesque landmarks and vistas that might have been seen through the windows.
As it was, the 246-foot airship hovered and passed over Moffett Field, offering scenes of FEMA trailers and airplane hangars and a great view of the future offices of Airship Ventures, the Silicon Valley startup that had the audacious idea of leasing one of the three zeppelins in the world, hauling it by ship from Hamburg, Germany, to Beaumont, Texas, and then last week flying it in a six-stop route to its new home at Moffett.
The zeppelin took several passes over the new offices. They were the bachelor officers' quarters of the former Moffett Naval Air Station, complete with swimming pool and bar, now being remodeled.
The idea to lease the airship, manufactured in Germany by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, a modern-day offshoot of the historic company that manufactured the original zeppelins, came to Brian Hall, the founder and CEO of Mark/Space, a software company, and his wife Alexandra Hall, the former executive director and CEO of the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland.
They knew that the manufacturer's zeppelin sightseeing operation near Lake Constance, at the borders of Switzerland, Austria and Germany, was successful and that it could be that and more in the Bay Area, which has good weather over 10 to 11 months, compared with seven in Germany, and a desirable demographic.
The German operation is so successful, said Michael Schieschke, chief operating officer of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, who was aboard Monday, that the company has a backlog of 10,000 tickets. He thinks the business model will thrive here.
"You have magnificent, ever-changing scenery, and as I flew here I thought, if it can't be done here, I don't know where," he said.
True, if the view includes whales, dolphins, coast, Wine Country and more - something more than the NASA Ames Research Center.
Monday's weather and a tanking economy notwithstanding, it is full-speed ahead for Airship Ventures.
'This is a luxury experience," Hall said aboard the third flight of the day Monday. "It's intended to either be a treat for yourself or loved one. We have companies booking it for their top-selling people, people celebrating wedding anniversaries and birthdays."
One of the Halls' investors, Esther Dyson, said she is so impressed with the plan that she is "about to put in a bit more money to help us through the turbulence."
The first charter customer, on Halloween, is a band called Abney Park, which performs in a genre called steampunk - a meld of fantasy and speculative fiction, or what Hall said is something like "Jules Verne meets the Victorian Age."
The day works for Abney Park, because the band will be in San Jose for a steampunk convention. One of its song's is titled "Airship Pirate," which did give Hall some pause.
"We will have to give them the extra frisking so they don't try to commandeer our ship," said Hall.
Hopefully, it will be clear skies for Abney Park, whose members will be coming in costume. The complete, 12-seat gondola for a one-hour flight out of Moffett or Oakland rents for $5,750. It's $6,100 in Sonoma.
Not a blimp: A zeppelin is a rigid airship developed in the late 1800s by German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Characterized by a covered cylindrical frame supported by internal gas cells, it is different from the more common blimp, which does not have a rigid frame.
Tickets: A one-hour flight on Airship Ventures' zeppelin is priced at $495 per person; two hours is $950.
When and where:
Beginning Friday, Airship Ventures will operate at Moffett Field in Mountain View and Oakland International Airport.