Tourist airship may soar over SF in 2008

Start-up plans to offer zeppelin rides and rentals over the San Francisco Bay Area--if the government and investors come through.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
ASPEN, Colo.--A start-up company is planning to offer tourists rides in a 250-foot zeppelin over the San Francisco Bay, Napa Valley and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Airship Ventures said Thursday that it plans to begin passenger flights in a German-made Zeppelin NT airship, to be based at NASA's Moffett Field airstrip about 40 miles south of San Francisco, in mid-2008.

Until Thursday's announcement at Esther Dyson's Flight School conference here, Airship Ventures had been in something of a stealth mode. Now it's disclosed details about the project, which will use a massive NT07 airship made by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik that's a full 10 feet longer than the new Airbus 380.

"You cannot buy a ticket to fly on an airship in the USA," said Alexandra Hall, Airship Venture's chief executive. "This is an opportunity you cannot have right now that we are providing to people." No prices have been disclosed, and the Web site with merchandise and additional details is supposed to go live in July.

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In addition to sightseeing over the scenic Bay Area at 500 feet to 1,000 feet above ground level, Hall said, other uses for the vehicle would include surveillance, science, media coverage of sporting events, and advertising (there's plenty of room, with the NT07's surface area of 2,630 square meters). The NT07 can hold 12 passengers and two pilots.

The other Airship Venture principal is Brian Hall, the founder and chief executive of software company Mark/Space, a software vendor that sells synchronization software for Macintosh computers and handheld devices.

One potential hitch is that the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved the NT07 for flight inside the United States, though it does have a proceeding under way. Barring unexpected bureaucratic red tape, Hall expects approval to be forthcoming by next year, in part because the airship has been operating in other countries for nearly seven years.

Other Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik-made airships have been used for sightseeing in Germany, as surveillance during the 2004 Athens Olympics, and by the De Beers company, for mineral prospecting in Africa.

Zeppelins are especially useful for those purposes because they can stay aloft for eight or more hours, far more than a helicopter or a plane, and remain quieter as well.

Unlike the airships of the early 20th century, modern zeppelins are filled with nonflammable helium gas. The 1937 Hindenburg disaster arose because the aircraft was filled with flammable hydrogen gas in part because of a prewar helium embargo from the United States.

One other thing that Airship Ventures is fond of pointing out is that its forthcoming NT07 airship is not a blimp. That's because blimps are akin to balloons that hold their shape based on the pressure of the gas, while rigid and semirigid airships have an internal framework which, in the case of the NT07, is composite material and aluminum.

New life for an old military airfield?
Even though NASA's Moffett Federal Airfield sits in between the Palo Alto, Calif., and San Jose, Calif., airports on some of the most valuable real estate in the United States, the airstrip is infrequently used except for special events such as accommodating Air Force One on presidential visits.

Unlike the Presidio, a former Army base in San Francisco that also fell into disuse, Moffett has not been privatized. Instead, portions are being rented out to Google and used as a venue for late-night dance parties.

Moffett does, however, have a unique feature: a set of massive hangars that were originally built in the 1930s to house submarine-hunting military blimps. (The largest, a local landmark called Hanger One, is 1,133 feet long and has been threatened with destruction because of the presence of lead and asbestos. One proposal would turn it into a convention center.)

"They're designed for 800-foot airships, not 300-foot ones," so there's plenty of space, Hall said.

Transporting the Zeppelin NT07 across the Atlantic, though, is no trivial task. Because it can't carry enough fuel to fly nonstop, options include ferrying it in shorter hops from the British isles to Iceland to Greenland to Goose Bay, Canada, in the same way pilots of jets like the Eclipse 500 already do. Another option is to place it in a container ship and float it across the ocean.

"Then we're going to fly it across America, which I think would really be outstanding," Hall said.

That leaves the final task of financing the airship. Airship Ventures says in its literature that "we do have one option, but it's not very attractive." It's looking for investors to help defray the cost, which could be around $12 million.