The Germans have written poetry about the experience of floating through the sky in an airship. On Monday my grandfather and I found out why.
Airship Ventures, Inc. let me bring along Ben DeBolt, 81, for a media tour on the 246-foot Zeppelin NT, which arrived Saturday afternoon to its new home in Moffett Field's Hangar Two. From there it will give paid tours and help NASA Ames researchers on scientific missions.
Ben DeBolt may be the biggest airship enthusiast around. Growing up in Lompoc -- former site of a Navy base for blimps -- his favorite book was "Tom Swift and His Airship." He joined the Navy himself in the late 1940s (after the Navy had dropped its lighter-than-air program), and later became founding president of the Moffett Field Historical Society. He once even owned a car with a convertible top made from blimp fabric.
On Saturday he joined a crowd of about 75 at Moffett, there to witness the return of a rigid-frame airship to the United States after eight decades. With a bottle of champagne, the crew celebrated the end of a long trip from Germany.
The Zeppelin took eight days just to get here from Texas. On the last leg of its journey, it flew up from Southern California, passing over the Pacific Ocean around Point Sur -- the place where the Moffett-stationed U.S.S. Macon airship crashed in 1935 -- and hovered for photo-ops over the Golden Gate Bridge before backtracking down to Moffett.
On our flight two days later, I felt like Charlie taking his grandfather to the chocolate factory. Not since the days of Moffett's air shows in the 1980s, when Moffett was still a Navy base, had either of us stepped onto the runway there. It was hazy out, but visibility was good enough.
Airship Ventures' staff seemed a bit nervous on this first day of public flights aboard the Zeppelin. "Stay together," they said several times as we crossed the tarmac. Then the overwhelming white vessel floated down, coming almost right at us, but not quite. So as not to alter its buoyancy, two people stepped onto the gondola whenever two passengers got off.
We boarded, strapped ourselves in and put our confidence in the two pilots: Kate Board, the world's first female airship pilot, and Fritz Guenther, a former East German Air Force pilot. One reporter tried to bother them with a request, but Guenther deflected him with clipped German efficiency: "After takeoff."
Suddenly the ship rushed straight upward with the help of 200-horsepower Lycoming engines, which can point thrust up, down and forward. "Up ship!" my grandfather said, using an old Navy phrase. Before we knew it we were slowly floating through the sky, casting a large shadow below us, and hearing nothing but a peaceful hum from the engines. The crew seemed to relax once in the air; seatbelts came off and everyone saw the views from each window.
Moffett Field sat about 800 feet below, alongside wetlands to the north and the Whisman area to the south. The Francia family orchard, nearly invisible from surface streets, seemed enormous.
"The hover is so wonderful, isn't it," said Michael Schieschke, COO of Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH.
It's not every day you're sitting next to a Zeppelin executive, so Grandpa asked him some questions. It turns out the airship's frame weighs only 2,200 pounds and the helium "envelope" another 2,200 pounds. "That's lighter than a Ford truck," my grandfather said. The airship gathers static electricity in flight, which is released through conductive landing gear once it touches down.
The all-important helium envelope is much more durable than those used in the 1930s. This one is made from Kevlar, carbon composite and polyurethane, and lasts over 10 years. The sailors of the Macon would be envious.
My grandfather plans to write an article about the flight for The Noon Balloon, the newsletter of the Naval Airship Association, of which he is a member. (He said it's mostly read by "old blimp sailors.") And the Zeppelin's arrival has led to a slough of newspaper articles to add to his "lighter than air" file.
"That was quite an experience," he said after we touched down. "I'm not sure how to express it yet."
After Monday's tours the airship was put away in Hangar Two for some much-needed maintenance. But soon it will be available for Bay Area sightseeing tours, with tickets starting at $495. Rides out of airports in Oakland and Sonoma County are also planned. See www.airshipventures.com for more information.