Zeppelin Rides Come To Southern California!

Zeppelin EurekaFor the first time in nearly 100 years, a zeppelin is coming to Southern California. As an airship buff, I couldn’t be more excited! Unlike the commonly seen Goodyear Blimp, the zeppelin’s open to passengers. I’m going up this weekend! Don’t know a zeppelin from a blimp? Unaware of Orange County’s history with lighter-than-air craft? Want to go? Read on!

Blimps are airships that lack a rigid structure. Basically, they’re like a big balloon with a control cabin hung underneath. Deflate a blimp, and the only thing left standing would be that cabin.

Zeppelins have a rigid framework. They don’t deflate, are larger than blimps and can carry more people. Back in early 1920s and 30s, they ran regular transatlantic runs.

The Hindenberg disaster helped usher out the era of the zeppelin as a passenger craft until 2001, when a new generation of zeppelin was launched — Zeppelin NT (for New Technology). This new craft is far more maneuverable than the old ones (read up on it here). And unlike the Hinderberg, it’s not filled with highly flammable hydrogen. It’s filled with helium, which doesn’t burn. You know, helium, the same gas you breathe to make yourself talk funny.

I remember clearly when the Zeppelin NT was proposed, because I did a newspaper graphic on the design. Then a few years later, I actually saw the first one operating in Germany. Then last year, I was amazed to learn that zeppelin flights were happening out of Moffett Field in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those giant hangers at Moffett were built to house zeppelins and blimps.

Eventually, I figured I’d have to make time to get up into the area to take a trip. Then I discovered in the Orange County Register that the Zeppelin Eureka was coming to Southern California. It’s leaving today from Moffett Field for the journey down, arriving on May 21 — and then having passenger flights over Memorial Day weekend, May 22-25. You can learn more about booking them here.

Apparently, the last time a zeppelin came to Los Angeles was in 1929, when the Graf Zeppelin was in the area. The Zeppelin Eureka will be operating from near Long Beach Airport, and flights will go over Seal Beach and Huntington Beach (with luck, maybe I’ll see a bit of Newport).

That brings me to the Orange County airship connection. Like Moffett Field, Orange County has two huge airship hangers. In fact, I’ve often seen them cited as the world’s largest wooden structures. They were home to anti-submarine blimps during World War II.

Blimp patrols are long gone, but the hangers remain — huge landmarks well known to North County residents. You can learn more about the history of the hangers briefly here, on Wikipedia here and in this long, excellent PDF history from the city of Tustin. The US Navy also has an excellent history of its lighter-than-air activities you’ll find here.

I grew up fascinated by those hangers, fascinated by the idea of all those blimps that were once there. And whenever I’d see the Goodyear Blimp occasionally go overhead — or pass by it on the freeway at its base in nearby Carson — I always wished somehow there was a way to ride in it. While I’m still waiting for jetpacks, aircars or to live in space, an airship ride has become a reality.

Heck, it might even happen sooner than I think. I mentioned that the Zeppelin Eureka was leaving today from Moffett Field. As it happens, I’m in the area for a conference. So I got in touch with Airship Ventures, the company that operates the Eureka, to see if I could watch the launch and blog it. They agreed, and if conditions are right, I might get to do a short trip on it before it heads down on the long trip to Southern California. So expect a future post to come, and I’ll post updates to my Twitter account.

Postscript: Almost made it! There wasn’t enough room for me to make it on in the end, but I’ll post some pictures and video of the takeoff in a bit, along with a number of cool zeppelin facts. I’m still going this weekend, of course — and there’s a chance I might get to live blog the flight back up from LA to Moffett Field and give everyone a sense of what the trip is like, as it happens.

Postscript 2: See Zeppelin Eureka Heads To Los Angeles & Orange County for pictures, video and more about today’s journey.

Postscript 3: See My Zeppelin Flight With Burt Rutan At The Helm about my actual flight. Also, Memorial Day Weekend 2009 spots are all sold out now. But the zeppelin returns July 2-7. The company also recently lowered its prices from $450 to $375 for a one hour flight, and they told me code s42 gets you 50% off a second ticket, if you buy two at the same time.