Balloon and Blimp Articles

AUG 15 2011
Balloons and Blimps >> Airship Ventures' US Tour

The name Zeppelin will be familiar to almost everyone. Images of giant hydrogen filled airships in the early years of the 20th Century come to mind and will probably trigger thoughts of large airship disasters such as the Hindenburg and the R101. That Zeppelin is still making airships and that they have a high tech approach to lighter than air flight is probably, however, not something that is as well known.

Hydrogen has been replaced with helium these days and the primary structure of the airship is now carbon fibre composite, but Zeppelin still manufactures a number of these exotic aircraft. Zeppelin has built four of its Zeppelin NT design in its plant in southern Germany and one customer is Airship Ventures.

Airship Ventures took delivery of its airship, the fourth built by Zeppelin, in 2008 and put it into service providing flights around the San Francisco Bay Area. It operates from Moffett Field making use of the giant airship hangars, originally built by the US Navy, that dominate that field. The airship originally cost approximately $15m, plus additional costs for certification by the FAA, and provides accommodation for up to 12 passengers in a gondola beneath the vehicle. The gondola has large windows giving an all-round view including a bay window at the rear and even a window in the bathroom! Introducing a premium travel product at the end of 2008 was not the most fortunate timing-wise given the worldwide economic downturn, but the business has proved to be resilient and is now developing well.

Pleasure flights have been a regular source of business but there have been other additional uses for the vessel. Aerial survey and mapping tasks have been undertaken and it has even been used for testing "special mission" payloads. A big development for the business was the tie up with Farmers Insurance. Farmers was looking for an aerial platform for TV coverage of a sporting event it was sponsoring and the only existing lighter than air platform was run by a competitor. The company contacted Airship Ventures and the start of a long relationship was born.

The airship is branded with Farmers' information and it has the ability to mount high definition TV cameras for broadcast to the ground - something that now occurs on a regular basis. Farmers is a nationwide business and its support has allowed Airship Ventures to take the airship further afield. Previously it had operated only along the West Coast but 2011 saw the start of a far more ambitious program.

The team left its West Coast base on April 8th 2011 at the start of the tour and, if everything goes to plan, it will conclude on October 9th. This is clearly a long time to be on the road and the 25 members of the team that are travelling with the airship are getting a lot of miles in and experiencing lots of different hotels! They do get occasional breaks during the tour but it is still a long time to be away from home.

The tour will take the team through 26 states in total by the time it reaches its conclusion, although not all of them will be stops where trips are provided. No less than 41 locations are scheduled to see flight operations, however, with 18 primary cities making up the itinerary. The time spent at each location varies from three to ten days and one significant port of call was the EAA's Airventure event at Oshkosh. This was a very popular time for ridership and it appears that somewhere between 450 and 500 customers rode during that event.

I met up with the team shortly after Airventure when they were making their second visit to the Chicago area. They don't have to advertise their visits very heavily since the arrival of an airship seems to generate a lot of publicity on its own! The airship flies low and slow enough that it is easily noticed and the local media pick up on it quickly, so knowledge about the flights soon spreads.

The team travels with everything it needs. There is duplication of all of the critical maintenance and support equipment including the truck mounted mobile mooring mast. When changing locations, the ship is launched and then everyone drives to the next location which, since the airship cruises at a relatively low speed, is not too challenging logistically.

I joined the team on its first day of operations at the base of DuPage County Airport. There were a number of staff on the ground to handle the arriving passengers, prepare them for their flight and help them board. There was also the maintenance team taking care of the ship and the flight crew. The ship is usually operated by a single flight crew and a sole flight attendant. All operations are VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and, while operating in less ideal weather is possible, it is not enjoyable for customers if the visibility is poor or the ride is rough, so operations are then suspended.

While not flying, the ship is attached to the mooring mast. Mooring involves attaching the nose line to a line from the mast and winching the ship in until it latches into place. Once on the mast, the ship can handle quite adverse weather conditions. It is rated up to 70kts of wind but the worst experienced so far is about 50kts. Launching procedures from the mast depend on the vagaries of the site. If there is a large, unrestricted area, the mast is left in place and approached by the ship which can then back away when departing. When space is more restricted, the mast can be driven around to optimize the approach path and then make space for departure.

When lots of customers are taking flights, a "flying passenger exchange" procedure is implemented. Everyone gets a detailed pre-flight safety briefing to explain how it will all work and this allows them to ask questions about the airship and how it operates. The airship approaches and the new customers are held a short distance away. Once on the ground, two new customers board and then two customers disembark. This process is repeated until everyone is changed over. This makes sure the airship’s weight is maintained and it stays firmly on the ground during the changeover. Ballast is carried at all times to maintain the whole ship in a slightly negatively buoyant state.

Bags of shot are stored under the gondola along with water ballast that can be vented as necessary. Also, burning fuel gradually reduces weight. Venting helium is avoided if possible since it is expensive to replace. It does, however, need periodic topping off as it is not possible to totally contain the gas. The crew were "shooting helium" while I was there and this can be done with local supplies rather than carrying it along with the ground crew.

Since the airship still has net weight at lift off it requires the power of the propulsion system to get it airborne and it has four propellers driven by standard Lycoming piston engines. Two props are mounted on the sides and these can be vectored from forward to vertical alignment. The other two are mounted at the tail. One is a dedicated yaw control prop and is fixed while the other can be vectored from straight down to fully rearward. The combination of these allows the ship a high degree of manoeuvrability.

The remote location of the engines makes for a very smooth ride in the gondola. Blimps have the engines mounted on the gondola so provide a lot more noise and vibration to the passengers than the Zeppelin NT does. The quiet nature of the ride was one of the things many passengers described after their trip on board. I talked to a number of people both before and after their rides and many turned up early to watch the flying before their turn came. Some had travelled long distances to ride the only Zeppelin in North America and they were all very excited. After the flights, their anticipation seemed to be justified. Cruising around at about 35 kts at 1,000' AGL provides a great opportunity to gently take in all of the surrounding area. One guy commented that the disappointment he felt at seeing the airfield as they returned was striking!

The tour seems to have been very successful so far with Farmers Insurance getting some great exposure from the journey across the country. The company has also been able to provide rides to its staff as incentive programs while the rest of the customers also seem to have been satisfied having experienced something totally different to what they may normally do. By the time the team returns to its home base in California in October, it will have notched up a lot of miles and a large number of customers. Whether this tour will be repeated remains to be seen. Perhaps a second airship will be needed one day?

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