Tired of your commute? Try a zeppelin
It’s late afternoon on Friday, and I’m in Long Beach, getting ready to go to Hollywood. The trip is a commuter’s nightmare for most. But for me, it’s a dream come true. That’s because I’ve booked passage on the world’s largest airship, the Eureka.
I’m sitting with six other soon-to-be airship passengers on a balcony overlooking the runway of a small airport. A representative of Airship Ventures, stands before us. He’s holding a seatbelt. “It works like your car’s seatbelt,” he says, clicking it closed for dramatic effect. We watch, entranced by anything he does. The young many goes on to talk about the company — how safe the zeppelin is, and how it’s different from a blimp (a zeppelin has a rigid body, a blimp is more like a balloon). My mind immediately conjures up vintage fiery Hindenburg disaster film footage. I even remember the Waltons episode about John Boy seeing the disaster in person. “We’ll line you up in pairs,” his voice brings me back to reality. “Once you’re onboard, a passenger from the earlier flight will get off. That way, we’ll keep the airship from rising off the ground before we’re ready.” As he speaks, a tiny white speck appears in the sky, right next to his left ear. The Eureka gets close enough for us to see the Farmers Insurance Group name and brand, which is printed on its side. Our host notices the ship, too, and directs us to the elevator. “O.K. folks, please stay together as we proceed to the van that will take you to boarding area.”
A few minutes later he’s arranged us on the field. We’re lined up in two’s like excited kindergarteners waiting to board Noah’s Ark for a field trip. In front of us, the zeppelin approaches, getting bigger and bigger. Finally it lands and the ground crew scrambles to secure and ready it for boarding. One of the crew motions for me to come. I climb the short ladder and quickly take one of the 12 seats. Soon, the door is shut and we’re quietly floating up and away into the cloudless, blue sky.
Reaching our cruising altitude in less than a minute, we quickly leave our seats. At the back of the cabin, the flight attendant opens a window. “Feel free to stick your head out if you like,” he says. But please make sure your camera strap is secure around your neck. I walk over, stick my head out and look down. Below me, the South Bay is spread out like a blanket of grey and white. I point my camera straight down and start shooting.
We pass over Griffith Park Observatory, circle the Hollywood sign, and then fly over Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. When we reach Holmby Hills, someone suddenly spots Arron Spelling’s monstrous 56,000 square-foot home. We scamper over to the right side of the cabin, gawking at it like a gaggle of tour bus-riding Midwestern “first-timers.” A few moments later, someone else calls out “The Playboy mansion!” Even at 1,000 plus feet, we’re close enough to spot someone jumping on the mansion’s backyard trampoline.
Above Hollywood, we wave to the pilot in a biplane. It has suddenly appeared and is making wide circles around the airship. The streets and highways below are starting to twinkle with the headlights of cars jamming the freeways. They create a glimmering golden thread, which grows brighter as the sun slowly drops into the Pacific.
We fly over the U.C.L.A. campus, and one of the passengers asks the crew if we can circle the Queen Mary. The pilot gets clearance from Air Traffic Control so we’re on our way. Night has fallen and the basin is now ablaze with lights.
The Eureka sways a bit as we turn to the right. Soon, in the distance, the Queen Mary appears, looking like a child’s bathtub toy. We float out over the ocean, make a quick circle around the ship and then head back to the airfield.
Back on the ground and in the van that takes us back to the parking lot, my fellow passengers are already talking excitedly about future trips they want to take on the zeppelin. One thing is sure, the only disappointing moment during the journey was landing at the airfield and realizing our experience was over.
Airship Ventures offers a variety of tours throughout California, including The San Francisco and Monterey Bays, the Wine Country and Silicon Valley. To learn more, visit www.airshipventures.com, or give them a call at (650) 969-8100.