Airships were not an uncommon sight in Seattle skies at one time, between regular visits of the Goodyear blimp to Seafair and U.S. Navy blimps cruising over Lake Washington. This week, a new generation of airship is in the area giving passengers a glimpse of the view from above.
It's a sausage-shaped dirigible based in California named Eureka. It's a next-generation zeppelin made with a hard exterior shell and filled with helium (not Hindenburg-style hydrogen). It's based at Everett's Paine Field and trips are $375 and up. The Seattlepi.com's Aubrey Cohen went for a ride.
The Northwest's history with airships goes way back. Famed airship pilot Lincoln Beachey floated about the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905. In 1908, an aviator flew over Seattle's Luna Park, and a dirigible was a presence in the skies over the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo in 1909. Famous airship crews have also passed through town, notably the Arctic explorers Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth, and Umberto Nobile, who were greeted by thousands of Seattleites when they visited the city after crossing the North Pole in an airship in 1926.
At one time, James Ditty, an early visionary of Eastside development, imagined that airships would transport commuters between Seattle and Bellevue — I'm sure better for the carbon footprint than floating bridges.
According to The Seattle Times, the owner of the airship, Airship Ventures CEO Brian Hall, fell in love with the craft while flying in one over Cologne, Germany, which, by the way, is also the home of Seattle's Alweg monorail. The Zeppelin NTs are made in Friedrichshafen, Germany, on beautiful Lake Constance, which was home to the famous German zeppelin fleet that included the globetrotting Hindenberg, Graf Zeppelin, and others. Early airships were tested above water and often crafted by boat-builders and navy men, not unlike the early airplanes of the original Boeing Company on Lake Union.
The Lake Constance area is also home to a fabulous Zeppelin Museum where you can board an accurate, life-size mockup of the passenger quarters of the Hindenberg to see what life was like for passengers aboard the classic airships of that era before they came to earth. There's an excellent restaurant there were you can eat off the Hindenberg menu on Hindenberg china if you want. You can also see charred Hindenberg relics in the exhibits, before or after dining.
Even after the age of the big passenger zeppelins had passed, airships continued to be used. The U.S. Navy had a blimp fleet stationed at Tillamook, Ore., where one of the giant sheds is now an air museum. The U.S. government and other companies are exploring ways of using airships in famine relief, warfare, and other purposes. Sightseeing is also a draw.
What is the appeal?
Airship flight is generally slower and lower than what you get in an airplane, and more directed than a hot air balloon. I had the chance to ride over Seattle on the Goodyear blimp Columbia in the late 1970s, and it was an unforgettable experience, and the opposite of a ride on a Blue Angel.
One reason is that an airship can fly at an altitude reminiscent of "dream flight." It is somewhere between flying and hovering. While aboard, you are completely unaware of the huge gas canopy overhead. You are merely hanging in space, moving and turning slowly, on a suspended view platform. In the front seat, you could open the passenger window and hang out. The city and landscape below felt like a living diorama. It was a blast circling over Green Lake from above.
Weirdly, I found it a little like riding in a floating VW microbus — one without a muffler, however. In the Goodyear blimps, the sound of the motors was a very loud drone, much like a small plane. They seem quieter when you watch them float from the ground.
We landed and took off from Sand Point Naval Air Station, now Magnuson Park. You came in for a landing at a pretty steep angle and stopped when a ground crew ran out and grabbed your ropes. On the ground, there was a wheel under the gondola and you could watch the airship bounce in the wind, which could make getting on and off gracefully a bit tricky.
The most "classic" zeppelin that visited Seattle was Led Zeppelin (at the Green Lake Amphitheater, 1969).
The new Zeppelin NT promises to be a very cool show too, but more like a step toward heavenly flight than a "Stairway to Heaven."