Way back in the 1980s, I took one of those touristy helicopter rides over the San Francisco waterfront; very cool, in its way, but also very noisy. About 8 or 9 years ago, my wife and I flew in a glider over Napa Valley; that was breathtaking, but very cramped.
The next time I'm up for that sort of aerial adventure in the Bay Area and its environs, there'll be a new option for me to consider: a zeppelin. Within days, a company called Airship Ventures will have its namesake aircraft set up at its new home at Moffett Field in Mountain View and will start running "flightseeing" excursions; by sometime in November, it also plans to get Oakland International and Sonoma County Airport involved, although just with the one zeppelin.
It's been a good seven decades since a zeppelin flew over the United States--the fiery, fatal Hindenburg crash in May 1937, along with the advent of World War II, pretty quickly put an end to that line of business.
Airship Ventures is quick to point out that today's Zeppelin NT (which stands for "new technology"), made by Germany's Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, is a different beast from its predecessors of the Jazz Age and the Depression era. The Hindenburg, the company says in its FAQ,
used hydrogen as its lifting gas, and lacquer materials in the fabric of its hull, which contributed to the explosion. Airships today use non-flammable helium, a gas that is safe enough to be used in party balloons. The Zeppelin-NT also features a tear-proof outer envelope composed of high strength, multi-layer fabric, and has an unmatched global safety record--carrying more than 80,000 passengers since August 2001, without a single incident.
The new-model zeppelins are also much smaller--246 feet in length, compared with around 800 feet in the olden days, and carrying just two crew members and up to 13 passengers, compared with a total of 80 to 100 or so for the big ancestors.
For now, Airship Ventures says, it has the one and only zeppelin in the U.S., and that's one of only three in the world.
As you might expect, flights won't come cheap--individual tickets start at $499 per person. (The glider ride, if I remember correctly, was somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. With the zeppelin, I'd be hoping for bit of legroom to go with the view.)