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Story by Ted Blishak; photos Edy Henderson & Sylvia Blishak   June 1, 2010

  Zeppelin Eureka  
Eureka's Engines in Horizontal mode for takeoff

When I stepped off a particularly claustrophobic Reno Air flight from Chicago, 15 years ago, I was ahead of the curve.

"I'll never fly again," I declared.

Nevertheless, as an enthusiast of historic air vehicles, I recently read about the Airship Ventures Zeppelin Eureka. I was determined to take a sightseeing trip aboard her around San Francisco Bay. Friends and relatives, amazed, said, "You said you'd never fly again—so why ride in a blimp?"

"A dirigible," I corrected, "and it doesn't fly. It floats." A blimp is a big balloon. This dirigible has an interior structure and compartments filled with helium.

  Zeppelin   Zeppelin gondola  
Call this number to make reservations
Gondola with 12 passengers and 2 crew inside

On a fine spring morning, Sylvia and I were were joined by five members of our California family, and looking forward to our adventure.

During breakfast, our 10-year-old grand-nephew, Alonzo, was reading a book. We glanced over in horror as he turned the page to a photo of the Hindenburg going up in flames.

"Wow! Look at that! I'm not going up on one of those," he said shakily.

"The old Hindenburg used flammable hydrogen," Sylvia explained. "But we'll be on a brand-new Zeppelin. Like all American dirigibles and blimps, it's filled with helium, which can't catch fire."


Soon, near Oakland Airport, we waited in a field ablaze with California poppies. The white, 246-feet long airship Eureka appeared, then floated overhead revealing her enormous size: she's 15 feet longer than a Boeing 747. Slowly reversing her propellers, then rotating them skyward in helicopter fashion, she pushed herself downward towards us. In this manner she easily overcame her buoyancy without having to release any precious helium.

Eureka requires a special boarding procedure, orchestrated by the ground crew, in order to maintain her balance—for we, the passengers, are used as ballast. As one disembarking passenger was helped off, a new passenger was assisted on board. This continued with one person off, and another on, until we had all traded places. The 200 hp Lycoming engines remained powered, keeping her in place vertically.

  Zeppelin on ground  
  Zeppelin gondola inside  

The cabin is spacious, with room for 12 passengers and two crew, and every seat is a window seat with plenty of legroom. We could drift around inside taking pictures, or sit next to the large observation window at the rear of the cabin.

Our pilot, Katharine "Kate" Board, is the only woman certified to pilot a dirigible. Changing the props to forward thrust and revving the engines to pull us up, she took the ship to altitude as people on the ground quickly became miniaturized. We were off!

The difference between flying in a plane—with engines constantly battling gravity—and floating in a lighter-than-air vehicle, with engines used only for positioning, is immense.

If my stoic brother-in-law Joe is smiling, you know everyone's having fun
  I had an elated feeling that lasted through the flight and for days after. When my rather taciturn brother-in-law Joe couldn't stop grinning, I knew we were all walking on air!  
      Zeppelin control panel      
Control panel of a Zeppelin NT
  Zeppelin-eye view of Golden Gate Bridge   Eureka floated over the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, with a bird's eye view of the new span under construction between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. We cruised over the San Francisco waterfront and close to the skyscrapers of downtown. As we turned towards Alcatraz, our shadow on the water preceded us. We approached the Golden Gate Bridge, and then circled towards Sausalito.   Alcatraz  
Golden Gate Bridge

The visibility was startlingly clear—much different than the too-quick, too-high view one has through scratched Lexan windows on an airplane. At 1,200 feet, we moved along at about 40 mph.

"There's our house!" cried seven-year-old Joseph as we passed near Lake Merritt.

As our one-hour journey was drawing to an end we watched our engines turn upward, then saw the grass in the field beneath flattened outwards as if by a helicopter as we descended.

Standing inside, we lined up, and then each of us wafted to the ground as we traded places with a boarding passenger.

As the gigantic Eureka prepared to lift, Kate, the pilot, did some adjustment to the vessel's buoyancy by dumping ballast water. With a new group of passengers waving at us, she took to the skies again.

  Zeppelin shadow   Zeppelin shadow   Zeppelin shadow  
  Our shadow dwarfs pleasure boats below  
Our shadow follows us everywhere...
...and back again

Later, we all glided into a conference room at Oakland Airport Holiday Inn for champagne and an informative conversation with the Air Venture staff.

They told us that Software entrepreneur Brian Hall, founder of a company called Mark/Space, and his wife Alexandra, started Airship Ventures when they purchased a Zeppelin NT (New Technology) from Luftschifftechnik GmbH, the same German company that built the Hindenburg.

Their new airship offered sightseeing flights as she made her way to England. Still inflated with helium, her engines were removed, and she was loaded inside a container built for transporting the Airbus jumbo jet. Placed on a freighter bound for Beaumont, Texas, she then, under her own power, continued to her headquarters at Moffett Field near Silicon Valley. There she can be stabled in a vintage dirigible hangar once used by the 785-foot-long USS Macon, a Navy Zeppelin aircraft carrier.

"Why didn't the airship travel from Germany to California on her own?" I asked. The moderator explained that, while they had been able to work out the technological details of the proposed journey, the bureaucratic details involving floating over various countries stopped them cold.

  Zeppelin flying towards San Francisco  

After hoping all my life that I'd have a chance to board a Zeppelin, I've found the experience addictive. That joyous sense of levitation isn't just physical; it's a mental tonic, too. In fact, whenever I think about the trip, my spirits rise and I start walking on air!

Air Venture's sightseeing itineraries include tours of Silicon Valley, San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay, Los Angeles, and San Diego. All-day transit flights between Northern and Southern California are also available.

For more information, you may reach Airship Ventures at, by email at or phone them at 1-650-969-8100.


Eureka made her first flight in 2008. Multi-tasking as a floating billboard for The Farmer's Insurance Group, the Zeppelin NT is versatile:

"She's suited to many types of involvement with disaster management, from surveying potential areas of landslide, to acting as a communications platform. Working with the Farmers Group, Airship Ventures will be exploring how to make sure that the airship is not only promoting messages of awareness as she flies around different communities, but also actively exploring being deployed in the case of emergency."

  Ted Blishak in Zeppelin  
Author enjoys view from his window seat

While there are more in the works, only three Zeppelin NTs are currently in existence. One, named Yokoso! Japan (Welcome to Japan!) was purchased by the Nippon Airship Corporation at

The Corporation points out that:

"A multitude of features make it applicable in a wide range of fields such as PR and advertising, environmental studies and observations, aerial photography and surveying, and disaster prevention.

"Airships are kinder to the environment than passenger jets. Airships that make leisurely flights in harmony with nature are being given a second look from the standpoint of environmental protection and the importance we place on comfort in our daily lives.

"....The Zeppelin NT is the largest airship today. It...receives its buoyancy from nonflammable helium gas, eliminating the danger of explosion and making it an extremely safe method of transport. Moreover, cutting-edge technology and superior operability make it possible to land and take off with a small number of personnel. In addition, it uses little fuel and needs no runway, so operation is clean and ecological."

Another Zeppelin NT, Fascination, will be offering tours over Munich, Germany, from 23 April to 1 May 2011. Visit for details.

  Happy Zeppelin passenger  

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, born in Prussia in 1838, retired from the army with a walrus mustache and the rank of brigadier general. Then he set about inventing the dirigible, piloting its first flight in 1900. His company built the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin.

The latter staged a daring around-the-world cruise in 1929. Her passengers (only one was a woman) enjoyed a lounge/dining room, fresh flowers, and cozy private staterooms.

By the time of Graf Zeppelin’s last flight (her 590th) eight years later, the ship had safely flown over a million miles, carrying thousands of passengers and hundreds of thousands of pounds of freight.

Grand-nephew Joseph's smile tells the story
  The original company, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, is still in business and built all three of the 21st-century Zepplein NTs in service today.  
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