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Friday, July 1, 2011

How to Fly a Zeppelin Airship

Piloting a zeppelin airship is a rare privilege—and harder than it looks.

By Jeff Wise

the author at the controls of the zeppelin eureka

Floating through the air 200 feet above the ground, I glide past a cluster of buildings, a stand of trees, the shoreline of a shimmering bay. A golf driving range drifts into view. Four men stop swinging their clubs and stare up, open-mouthed. In an age that's jaded by wall-to-wall entertainment, they're experiencing an all-too-rare sensation: pure awe. A giant oval shadow moves over them, and I'm gone.

If the guys at the golf club think a low pass by a 246-foot airship is impressive, they should check out the view from the pilot's seat. That's where I am, getting flight training in a zeppelin. It's an incredibly rare privilege. There are fewer licensed zeppelin pilots in the United States than there are Supreme Court justices. And there is only one zeppelin airship in the country.

For most people, the word zeppelin evokes one indelible image: the Hindenburg's flaming crash in 1937. That catastrophe struck the death knell for commercial airship travel, but the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company, which owned the doomed airship, hung in there. Out of the wreckage of postwar Germany, it prospered in a variety of ventures, among them selling and servicing Caterpillar construction equipment. Then it got back in the airship business, launching a helium-filled model called the Zeppelin NT (for "new technology") in 1997. Since then, the company has built three more airships, now flying in Japan and Europe.

To see the American zeppelin up close, I travel to San Francisco, where a company called Airship Ventures operates the Zeppelin NT Eureka. Mostly, Eureka earns its keep by carrying passengers on short sightseeing jaunts. A year ago, however, the company also began offering zeppelin-piloting classes. Customers who have a private pilot's license can spend two days learning about the zeppelin, including 3 hours riding as a passenger and a half-hour as the pilot.

At noon on a sunny Monday, I arrive at the front gate of Moffett Field, a former Navy base. I go to a classroom with five other students and chief pilot Fritz Günther, a severe-looking former flight instructor in the East German air force who introduces us to Eureka's basic principles. He explains that a Zeppelin NT is designed to fly a bit heavier than air, which makes it easier to handle on the ground (airships of the Hindenburg era required hundreds of men to hold them down). To get off the ground, the zeppelin is equipped with propellers that can swivel up and down to provide vertical thrust. Then, when the ship is in the air and moving at speed, it shifts into "flight configuration," in which the engines swivel to horizontal. In effect, the highly maneuverable Zeppelin NT is a cross between a dirigible and a tilt-rotor aircraft like the V-22 Osprey.

The next morning we finally get to climb aboard. Inside, the gondola is spacious, more like the interior of a yacht than an aircraft. It feels like a yacht too—even on the ground, the gondola's slow rolling motion reminds me of an ocean swell. The first student straps into the pilot's seat, with Günther in the co-pilot's chair to his right. The engines increase in pitch. Smoothly, we begin to rise vertically into the air. We start to move forward as well, as though ascending a giant escalator. The expanse of the airfield falls away, and soon we are coasting along at 1000 feet over Silicon Valley.

Those of us who aren't at the controls roam around the gondola, admiring the view. The windows slope outward, so we can look straight down and watch the scenery scroll beneath our feet. I open a window and stick my head out into the 40-mph slipstream like a dog on a road trip. Mountains lie to the west, the bay to the east, all of it soft and gauzy in the morning's lingering haze. As an Airship Ventures staffer hands out snacks and drinks, I feel like I'm at a party that happens to be dangling a quarter-mile up.

Eureka returns to the airfield and touches down; now it's my turn. I strap in and put on a headset. Almost immediately I'm struggling to keep up as Günther talks me through the controls. There are so many of them. One lever controls the angle of the two forward propellers; a nearby pair changes their thrust. A joystick on my left-hand side commands the rear propellers to pitch the nose up and down or to yaw side-to-side. On top of that, there are numerous switches and levers and toggles to control the pressure of the helium and the distribution of ballast. Helpfully, Günther tells me what to do; if I'm too slow, he reaches over and moves the control himself.

Up we go, climbing and gaining forward speed. I focus on the stick as I try to keep the enormous lumbering craft under control. With three engines, four propellers and a bag of helium gas whose buoyancy constantly changes depending on the temperature and pressure, piloting the zeppelin is like flying an airplane and making a scuba dive at the same time. As I try to figure it all out, Eureka bucks and weaves through the California sky like a spastic humpback whale.

As we reach 25 mph, Günther switches the ship to flight configuration. Now we're using the fins, not the engines, to control the ship's motion. I'm starting to get the hang of it. Part of the trick is to fly the zeppelin like you'd steer a sailboat, anticipating corrections by a few seconds. But I still can't seem to stop the ship from unexpectedly rearing up or shifting to one side. "Remember, it's not just you moving the ship," Günther says. "You've got air currents and lift from thermals."

I keep trying. Precision flying, this is not. But I've reached my moment of Zen: No matter how badly I fly this thing, it's still going to keep bobbing along. You can't flip a zeppelin upside down; you can't dive-bomb it into the earth. The ship is inherently stable. That's comforting to know. And the golfers below certainly seem more than impressed.

My time is almost up. I head back toward the airfield and start coaxing Eureka down, angling the thrusters forward and back, toggling the throttle, easing us slowly toward the tarmac and the waiting ground crew. A few yards off the ground, the ship hangs, hesitant, then a nudge of thrust brings the front wheel down. The crew grabs a line hanging from the nose, and we're back on the ground. I unstrap and climb out of the pilot's seat, still feeling lighter than air.