Zeppelin highlights

For my birthday, as I noted at the time, a bunch of friends got me a zeppelin ride, and the zeppelin company upgraded me from a one-hour trip to a two-hour trip.

I posted a placeholder entry about it right after the trip; I've been meaning to post more about it ever since. This entry won't be a hugely detailed description, but I figure I can at least post an overview, and some photos.

The morning of the trip, I arrived at Moffett Field at the appointed hour; had a little trouble finding parking (it was not well-marked), but figured things out eventually. Went inside, checked in, hung out in the passenger lounge for a while.

The lounge walls featured a couple dozen old magazine ads for zeppelins and zeppelin travel. The owner of Airship Ventures has apparently been buying these old ads on eBay, and then posting them in the lounge.

The ads went through an interesting progression: they started with ads about how airships were helping find and destroy German submarines; then they said things like "You should buy our tires, because they're made with the same kind of rubber that airships use!"; later, they said stuff more like "you should buy our product, because it's not old-fashioned like airships." There were also some ads for airship travel, including one that showed businessmen (in the future!) sitting in an airship lounge looking out over the Grand Canyon as they discussed Important Business Matters.

Unfortunately, I'm not clear on the decades those ads came from. I had remembered them as starting in the '40s and going through the '60s, but given that the Hindenburg disaster was in '37, that doesn't seem to make much sense. I'm now thinking they must have started with WWI-era.

Here was my favorite bit from one of the ads for airship travel:

It's designed to carry 112 passenger in luxurious comfort—with large staterooms, gay salons—many other features of a deluxe ocean steamship and three times the speed.

Yes, gay salons were once an important feature of a deluxe ocean steamship. Where do I sign up?

Anyway. The other thing I did in the lounge was eavesdrop on other passengers; I wasn't up to actually talking with them, but I did hear some of them talking (not privately) to each other. If I understood right, a few of them had also received the trip as a gift, and a couple of them indicated that this was something they'd wanted to do all their lives. I think most of the other passengers were older than me, though a few might've been a little younger.

After a brief safety talk, mostly about boarding procedures (they have to be sure that each pair of new passengers gets on before the corresponding pair from the previous trip gets off, to keep the zeppelin on the ground), we got in a van and were driven to the departure site.

The zeppelin arrived—exciting! That's a real live actual zeppelin landing right there in front of us!—and settled to the ground, and we swapped places with the preceding group of passengers, and then we were lifting off.

We had eleven passengers total (they can take up to twelve), plus two friendly pilots and a flight attendant. Everyone got a window seat, and we were free to move around the cabin throughout the flight, except during takeoff and landing.

There were several openable windows, which were open for most of the flight; there was also a non-openable observation-bubble area in the back, from which you could look almost straight down.

During the course of the flight, we flew up the Peninsula, across to the Pacific coast, then up around the tip of San Francisco and back down the Peninsula.

The Peninsula parts on the way up were interesting mostly for the views they afforded of the big houses in and around Palo Alto. Apparently most of the other passengers weren't from the immediate area; several of them said things like "Wow! Look at those houses! They've all got swimming pools!" I am perhaps a little jaded about Palo Alto-area wealth, having grown up there, albeit without the wealth part.

My favorite part of the trip was the Pacific coast. Great views of waves and shoreline, a neat spiral water pattern around an offshore rock, and seeing the zeppelin's shadow in the clouds below us, layered through several layers of mist and with a sort of rainbow tinge around the edges. Crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge at low altitude was also super cool.

On the way back down the Peninsula, everyone was a little subdued—maybe a bit tired, maybe just that it was pretty much the same route we had covered before. Still, the last few minutes afforded another of my favorite parts: we flew past my house, about a block away and less than a thousand feet up.

As one of the other passengers put it, the flight was a lot like the first two minutes of an airplane flight, when you're low enough to still see interesting stuff—only in the zeppelin, that first-two-minutes feeling lasted for the whole flight, and we were going slowly enough to get a good look at things before they were too far away.

The main thing that surprised me about the trip was that the point of it was not Being In A Zeppelin; it was sightseeing. I had expected that the amazing part would be the elegant experience of airship travel, the technology of a bygone and more civilized era, etc; and certainly that was cool. But the most amazing part was the views.

In other words, it was a really nice two-hour sightseeing tour of the Peninsula and San Francisco, from a perspective that you can't get any other way: a thousand feet up, moving relatively slowly, with very little noise, and the windows open.

As I mentioned before, I took along my new camera, which does 12x optical zoom. I took about 300 photos, and a couple dozen video clips.

I haven't uploaded the videos or most of the photos to the web yet, but I've now posted a highlights collection of 50 of the best or most interesting photos. [Updated link in 2022 to point to the SmugMug version of these photos.]

I recommend looking at the individual photos rather than at the thumbnails; the closeups look better at larger sizes.

For anyone planning a zeppelin trip, I have some advice about views and photography:

  1. My camera's 12x zoom with image stabilization made a huge difference. If you're going to take photos at all, take along some sort of telephoto lens or super-zoomable camera. It might be nice to also be able to take some wide-angle panorama shots, but for me, the coolest part was being so close to the ground, and the zoom helped accentuate that.
  2. If you take photos, take them through an open window whenever possible. The photos I took through the (unopenable) rear bubble and other closed windows came out fine, but the ones through the open windows were noticeably clearer.
  3. Regardless of whether you're taking photos, bring along binoculars. I didn't think of that, but one of the other passengers had some, which made me wish I'd brought some.

I'll close with a side note: I was looking up zeppelin info on Wikipedia the other day as I wrote this entry, and came across a sort of a joke:

The steampunk genre of science fiction has adopted the zeppelin as something of a mascot. They are representative of general steampunk themes with their grand scale, Victorian aesthetics, and failure to be put into common use.

. . . Which reminds me to mention that after the zeppelin flight, Kam and I went to the Computer History Museum, where we got to see the Babbage Engine. Sadly, we had missed the demo (we'll have to go back at some point), but it was still way cool.

Anyway. Thank you again to all who contributed to the zeppelin ride. One of the best birthday presents ever.

2 Responses to “Zeppelin highlights”

  1. Zed

    What would be really cool would be a Babbage Engine on a Zeppelin.

  2. Nao

    Theo says he really liked looking at the pictures of the zeppelin. He especially liked the lighthouse pictures.


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