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The zeppelin returns to L.A. skies, after 80 years

November 24, 2009 | 10:43 am

The last time something like this was seen in Los Angeles was 1929, when the Graf Zeppelin dropped in on Westchester's Mines Field before starting its nonstop Pacific crossing during its record-setting around-the-world flight.

The era of the rigid-framed zeppelin came crashing to an end in 1937, when the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg exploded spectacularly as it attempted to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Thirty-six people were killed.

But now the zeppelin is back and filled with non-explosive helium gas. A privately run company based at the San Francisco-area Moffett Field has returned the German-made craft to California skies. Although airships such as the Goodyear blimp are a common sight in the Los Angeles area, blimps are smaller than zeppelins and carry only six passengers.

The 246-foot zeppelin, called the Eureka, can carry 13 passengers and a crew of two. Those on board have views of landmarks through giant plexiglass windows that line all sides of its cabin. So far, the Eureka has made four trips to Los Angeles, and its operators plan more for next year, starting with a two-week visit in mid-January.

They offer public flights over the coast and the city and hope to add excursions over Palm Springs and San Diego. Sightseeing rides are spectacular but pricey.

A half-hour trip costs $199; a two-hour flight, $950. A daylong excursion between Los Angeles and San Francisco runs $1,500. The craft also can be chartered for events such as birthdays or weddings for $5,500. So far, 5,500 paying passengers have climbed aboard the Eureka, using rolling steps to enter, two at a time, while the huge craft is held to the ground by two hull-mounted engines.

A third engine on the zeppelin’s tail provides forward thrust at a speed of about 30 miles per hour. As steep as it is, the fare’s a good deal for a ride in one of only three zeppelins in existence, say the Eureka’s owners, a husband-and-wife team.

Brian and Alexandra Hall recruited investors to create the company they call Airship Ventures. They’ve spent about $18 million on the zeppelin and ground support, which includes two special mast trucks for mooring the craft and a 36-person staff.

“A German zeppelin company has been a profitable business since 2001m and they only fly part of the year because of the weather, and they fly over a rural area where there’s nothing to see at night,” said Alexandra Hall, who serves as the company’s chief executive officer. “Here we can fly year-round, there’s plenty to see at night, and there are plenty of people.”

She said the pair anticipate reaching the break-even point in 2010. So far, revenue from the sale of advertising space on the sides of the zeppelin has been disappointing, but that could change as the economy improves and the zeppelin’s manufacturer perfects a lightweight LED electronic billboard for the airship, she said. The airship’s third revenue stream comes from its use as a platform for scientific research, photography and filmmaking, Hall said.

But it’s the passenger service that is creating the most buzz. Those who sign up for Eureka rides undergo airline-type screening before being allowed to board. The zeppelin’s designers calculate that its helium and three Lycoming engines can lift 4,310 pounds.

Propellers in the two engines attached to the zeppelin’s lightweight triangular carbon-fiber interior framework rotate to blow downward when the zeppelin takes off and rises almost straight up. Cruising altitude is about 1,200 feet. Once off the ground, passengers are encouraged to move about the cabin, which is equipped with a small lavatory.

They can chat with the pilot and co-pilot, who invite them to open two of the windows and stick their heads – or camera lenses – out into the rushing air. The craft normally moves about 35 miles per hour, although it can reach 77 mph.

The slower the better, say those who have been aboard the Eureka. “You could see everything – people working in the fields, running with their dogs on the beach, animals and scenery,” said Marlene Wait, a Somis resident who took a nine-hour flight between Long Beach Airport and Moffett Field on Sept. 8 with her husband, retired psychiatric technician William Wait.

Eureka crew members say people are often startled when the zeppelin appears overhead. Its engines are quiet, and most don’t notice the huge airship approaching. 

“The airship’s shadow would cross in front of cars, and they’d pull over to the side of the road to get out and look up to see what was above them," she said. "It was awesome, incredible. It was expensive but worth it.”

-- Bob Pool