Lighter than air in  America’s only Zeppelin

June 11, 2008

A stunning aerial sight awaits AOPA Expo visitors—a 246-foot long Zeppelin plying the skies of the San Francisco Bay area. The stunningly beautiful and huge white airship made its first commercial flight in the United States on Nov. 5—the first time a Zeppelin has flown over this country in 71 years.

The ship’s owner, Airship Ventures, purchased the aircraft from Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), a German company with direct ties to the famed 100-year-old Zeppelin company that built the enormous airships that crossed the Atlantic in the 1930s, including the famed Hindenburg. One of only three Zeppelins in the world, N704LZ flew for two months over London on flightseeing missions before being crated up and shipped to United States. It arrived in Beaumont, Texas, a few weeks ago. It was then reassembled and flown to its new home at storied Moffett Field near San Francisco, home of the U.S. airship development program of the 1930s and base to the USS Macon.

Like the airships of old, the new one has a semi-rigid frame inside the giant envelope, which is what separates an airship from a blimp. However, unlike the 1930s versions, which used hydrogen for lift, N704LZ uses helium, which is considered safer because it is not flammable. And that’s about the only similarity.

Airship Ventures’ craft is powered by three 210-hp Lycoming IO-360 engines—one on each side of the envelope mounted on sponsons and one on the tail. The envelope-mounted engines can rotate to provide vectored thrust. The one on the tail actually drives two propellers—one that is parallel to the ship’s lateral axis to provide yaw control at low speeds and another that pivots from a level “helicopter rotor” position for assistance with takeoff lift to a pusher configuration to provide thrust in level flight.

The pilot controls the engine positions and the flight controls through a single joystick Pilot Fritz Gunther at the controls

The pilot controls the engine positions and the flight controls through a single joystick connected to a fly-by-wire control system. There are no mechanical flight controls. An automated system also manages the flow of air in and out ballonets inside the envelope to provide the desired balance—pumping air in makes the ship heavier and can raise or lower the nose. Removing air makes the ship lighter than air. In a normal configuration the ship carries 7 tons of mass, yet may “weigh” only 880 pounds.

The ship is currently certified for VFR day and night flights. It will soon be certified for IFR flight and is currently equipped for IFR with a Bendix/King KLN90B GPS, dual navs and coms, an ADF, DME, and transponder. An electronic HSI and EADI provide position and navigation information to the pilot. A KMD550 MFD provides moving map information. A pair of glass displays in the center console shows engine data and information about the positioning of the ballonets and helium levels.

Because of the semi-rigid design and the three engines, the ship can be landed with only one ground crew person, although as many as four are needed for commercial passenger operations—compared to 12 to 18 people on a typical blimp ground crew and as many as 240 on an airship the size of the Hindenburg.

Tom Haines joins pilot Fritz Gunther at the controls Thomas Haines, AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief, with pilot Fritz Gunther

“AOPA Pilot” Managing Editor Julie Walker and Photographer Chris Rose joined me on the Airship Ventures’ first commercial flight for a two-hour tour over the San Francisco Bay area. The airship cruises at about 40 knots and typically at around 1,200 feet agl. The composite cabin seats 12 in first-class-sized seats and includes a restroom. The windows are enormous, giving passengers a tremendous view. Two of the windows open for clear photography. A panoramic aft window with a bench seat also provides a spectacular view.

Airships provide a remarkable way to see the worldPilot Fritz Gunther noted that airship travel is the most remarkable way to see the world. “We’re low, slow, and everyone loves us,” he says. “And they pay me to do this.” Gunther is on loan from the German company to help Airship Ventures get established. Their pilot is Kate Board, who was featured in AOPA Pilot’s Pilots column.

The ship is based at Moffett, next to three enormous airship hangars, but Airship Ventures plans to occasionally offer flights out of other regional airports, such as Oakland and Sonoma and will even venture to Long Beach, Calif., in February for a convention. Currently, the flight schedule calls for one two-hour flight a day and multiple one-hour flights. Prices start at $495 per person for one-hour flights.

Zeppelins are a beautiful way to see the worldAs Walker notes in her blog, the experience is truly once-in-a-lifetime. Our trip took us just off the end of the runways at San Francisco International Airport out to the Pacific Coast, up to the Golden Gate Bridge protecting the entrance to San Francisco Bay, right over Alcatraz, and up the bay past downtown San Francisco—an unbelievably beautiful excursion offering sights only possible from such a craft. It’s so quiet inside the cabin that we could hear fire truck sirens on the streets below.

A ride in the Zeppelin makes for a memorable close to an Expo weekend. Visit the Airship Ventures Web site for flight information.