Our trip started out with a preflight briefing, security screening, then a ride out to the private section of the Oakland airport. There, we watched the arrival of the Eureka airship!
Not to be confused with a Blimp, the Eureka has a rigid internal structure. So even with the helium removed, it will retain its general shape.
Airship Ventures started operating the Eureka out of Moffett Field in November of 2008. At 246 ft long, it is the largest airship in the world.
That's our pilot Katherine 'Kate' Board. She is the only female Zeppelin pilot in the world. I believe she's British.
Eureka's 2 main engines are mounted high above the gondola, attaching to the airship's internal bracing instead. This reduces engine noise and vibrations in the cabin, and also allows for an impressively unhindered viewing experience.
The 3rd engine is mounted aft, where it drives 2 propellers. One helps control yaw (like a helicopter tail rotor), and the other pitch. The one pointed down in the picture can be swiveled upwards, where it acts as a pusher propeller during normal flight.
Here's Kate getting ready to lift off.
And away we go!! Oh my gosh, the take off was unbelievable! With no effort at all, we were hundreds of feet above the ground. It really was just like releasing a helium balloon. Helium of course, is the inert-lighter than air gas which provides the buoyancy that allows Eureka to fly.
Airship Eureka has 2 doors, each with a window that opens. Yes, not only do they open in flight, they encourage you to stick your head out there!!
The cockpit area, like the rest of the cabin, provides a wonderfully unobstructed view of the surroundings.
As we head towards San Francisco, Alameda island can be seen on the left.
Eureka's cabin can seat 12 passengers, plus a crew of 2.
Here is an aerial view of the USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750), moored in Alameda.
Sticking my head (and arm and camera) out the window, I get this view... Yeah, it's pretty intense!
Directly below is the 880 Freeway (which we all know and love so much). I believe that's Jack London Square towards the middle, and the old Alameda Naval station towards the top left.
Cruising at around 1000ft and 35mph, we got this amazing view of downtown Oakland, Berekely, and beyond!
At the briefing, they actually encourage you to stick your head out the window. That is how one gets inducted into the Zep-Head club! Yes, some people did it more than once. :-)
No, it's not a bluescreen photoshop. This is actually the back end of the gondola (note the little sticker about the seat). It's this bench, with a wrap around view of the rear. Other than sticking the head out the window, the best spot to be on the airship!!
With the engines mounted so high, you'd really have to make an effort to see it. Even with the windows open, it's more of a whishing noise, as the propellers cut into the air. Seen in the distance is of course, downtown San Francisco.
Once airborne, passengers were free to roam around and take in the sights from different stations. Trust me, no one just stayed in their seat!
Here we are, flying over Alcatraz.
Lived here for almost 20 years, but have never set foot there. The shame! But at least I've now flown over it!!
A picture postcard view of San Francisco, including Pier 39, and the Aquatic park. Other icons like the Transamerica building, coit tower, and Bay bridge can also be seen.
Looks like a wing, but it's actually the rear underside of the airship.
We make a U-turn before getting too close to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were not flying the airship's normal routine, as this was the Thursday of Fleetweek, and the Blue Angels were getting ready to do their practice flight - all sorts of airspace restrictions were in place... we were thankfully to be even allowed to fly! By the way, Eureka did participate in the Fleetweek '09 air show. It did a hover, rocking, spinning, and nodding routine (I don't know how else to describe it!) Saturday. Sunday's show was considerably shorter, and it only did a fly by.
Here's another shot showing the interior. Even if you stayed in your seat, there are huge windows you could look out of.
The pilot and co-pilot's view.
This is looking out the back window, where the airship's tail wheel can be seen, as we turn away from San Francisco.
Over flying Yerba Buena island.
Our co-pilot for the day was Flight Instructor consultant from Germany, Hans Paul Strohle. Got a lot of good information about airships from him! Weight management is very important for airship operations. Tiny things like direct sunlight warming up the gas in the airship a couple of degrees would generate increased lift (I think he said 80kg per degree Celsius) - due to the gas expansion. Conversely, losing the sun in the evening would cause a loss of lift. Things like how much fuel, rate of consumption of fuel, how many passengers, and so forth all figure into the calculation.
When they first picked us up, there were a few extra crew members on board. But that's not nearly enough to offset the 12 passengers they were to take on. So they carried water as ballast. After taking on the passengers, the water was released, and away we went! (The grass at Oakland airport really looked like it could use it too!)
An artsy shot of San Francisco, in almost monochrome color.
Shooting towards the sun is usually not advised, but what the heck. Rules are meant to be broken!
Downtown Oakland. That crazy straight street? I believe that's Broadway.
Lake Merritt is pretty darn big.
If you stick your head far enough out the window, you CAN look straight down. Probably not something many would want to do!
A parting view of downtown Oakland. Or as a Southwest flight attendant said over the intercom - land of Oaks. I know, I'm just repeating what I heard!
The Oakland Coliseum parking lot is huge!
The Oracle Arena (where the Warriors basketball team plays) looks like a giant bulls eye that says to space aliens - shoot me here!
Yeah, Kate thinks that's funny! (no, not really...she's just smiling for the camera). The air ship uses fly-by-wire technology, to control the 3 engines.
The airship pilot uses the joy stick for primary directional control, and the computer figures out the rest (like how much to swivel or tilt the engines, and a host of other calculations). There are a also other controls available which can be used to adjust for trim and buoyancy if needed.
View from the cockpit. Note the ropes are always there!
Actually shot this with a very slow shutter speed. The props don't really seem to spin that fast in real life. Even though we were supposed to cruise at around 35mph, I think the pilot's GPS said we were going 45kt. Max speed, which is not ever used, is 70kt.
Eureka is the 3rd of its class of Zeppelin NT airships, and the only one in the United States. The other airships are in Germany, and Japan. The one in Japan flies for ads space only, and doesn't carry passengers.
Am I sticking my head out the window again? Looks like it! It's actually hard to hold steady with the wind buffeting me.
Here's a shot showing the Zeppelin's shadow. With the sun being so far from earth, the light rays reaching us are for all intents and purposes parallel. Thus, the shadow cast by sunlight is the same size as the object (assuming the surface the shadow is cast on is normal, or perpendicular, to the light rays). You can see how big Eureka is by comparing the cars on the freeway below to the shadow!
Of course, the Eureka is a fraction of the size of the giant interwar year Zeppelins and rigid airships. Those behemoths can easily carry over 100 people in comfort.
Throwing in an artsy shot of the airship controls.
I liked the way the 4 softball fields are arranged.
The old salt evaporation ponds (between the San Mateo Bridge, and the Dumbarton Bridge) creates interesting color patterns, due to the different salinity and resultant algal and brine shrimp concentrations.
Helium and air valves. Apparently, helium is never released during normal flight. Air is moved back and forth to help trim the air ship though.
Here's a nice view of the air ship's cabin.
As we approach the end of the flight, we have to once again take our seats and buckle in. Out the window can be seen the main runway of Oakland International airport. No, we're not landing there...
As mentioned before, the cabin is very quiet, and it's effortless to carry on a normal conversation. The ride was likewise very smooth.
Just so there's no mistake, 'OAKLAND' is painted in big letters on the tarmac.
On final approach, it's as soft as an escalator ride. Actually, even smoother! The key to Eureka, is that it is safe. Unlike blimps and older generation airships, the Eureka is fully maneuverable. Even in light to moderate winds, it can hover and land, and only needs one person on the ground to hang on to the rope. A far cry from the old days, when there were tons of people grabbing the ropes and hanging on for dear life!
The front of the airship has what looks to be a quick connect fitting, which attaches to a boom on a truck in Moffett field. That's how they park her at night. Sometimes, they will roll her into the hangar. But mostly, it's park outside hangar 2. Tethered only on the front, the airship is allowed to swivel around that attachment point by the blowing wind.
With all the passengers off, and a new load of passengers on, Eureka prepares to take off again.
And Off it goes!
Pretty cool to have it fly directly overhead!
you can check their website for details, but I believe Airship Ventures charges $495 for an hour's flight. Chartered flights are also available.
I count my lucky stars to have had the opportunity to experience flying in an airship! If you've ever wondered what it's like to float above the hustle and bustle, you owe it to yourself to try this out!