Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Airships: Real and Imagined

This summer's Disney/Pixar film "Up" prominently features a classic airship, the "Spirit of Adventure" (shown above). A mock news reel shown at the beginning of the movie says the giant 1930s-era dirigible was as long as "22 Prohibition paddywagons" and served as the world-traveling home of historic adventurer Charles Muntz.

Those images captivate young Carl, the movie's protagonist -- much as images of the real-world dirigibles that inspired "Spirit of Adventure" first captured my imagination when I was eight-years-old. The idea of a flying ocean liner activated both my obsessive grade-schooler's focus on anything aeronautical and my matching interest in skyscrapers and other massive feats of human engineering.

Like Carl in "Up," the decades since then have done little to dim my fascination -- which perhaps explains why I am in Northern California tonight, too excited to sleep on the eve a 400-mile flight down the Pacific coast on a real German Zeppelin.

The airship Eureka, which I'm scheduled to ride tomorrow from Silicon Valley to Long Beach, is one of four such Zeppelin NTs built over the past dozen years. They were made by the corporate offspring of a company founded more than a century ago by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, an aviation pioneer whose name is now synonymous with these kinds of aircraft. But these new Zeppelins use helium for lift -- not the hydrogen used on the ill-fated Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg disaster ended the era luxurious, intercontinental airship travel more than 70 years ago. And yet classic airships continue to be a nostalgic fixture of science fiction and fantasy books and films -- from the floating electronic billboards of "Blade Runner" to the fleets of Zeppelins featured in the movie "Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow", Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" novels and Kenneth Oppel's "Airborn" series. Second Life users whose avatars are aspiring aeronauts can even buy and operate their own virtual airships, some of which take their names and designs from historical zeppelins and airfields -- or from even earlier ideas for sky boats.

Some in the aviation industry appear to share these romantic visions of large-scale, lighter-than-air travel -- as I noted last summer in a posting here about some real-world airship projects. These visions tend to focus on rigid or semi-rigid airships, rather than non-rigid blimps (the boneless chicken of airships), in part because their frames would allow for better engine placement for steering and greater capacity for carrying cargo or people. But grand dreams of environmentally friendly dirigibles efficiently hauling cargo or passengers across remote areas or around the globe always seem to encounter some kind of engineering, economic or institutional turbulence.

ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG, the company that built the airship I'm scheduled to ride a few hours now, is an exception. Its Zeppelin NTs are currently in service in Germany, Japan and now the United States, ferrying tourists on short trips and providing a high-profile billboard for creative advertisers. But the company also is exploring ways to use the Zeppelin NT as a platform for scientific and surveillance missions.

Tomorrow's scheduled journey is the California-based Eureka's second extended sight-seeing trip from its new home near Sunnyvale. The ship's first flight to the L.A. area and back straddled the Memorial Day weekend -- when, as it happens, Disney/Pixar was using the Eureka to help promote "Up."

I'll write more in a follow-up posting about my trip -- and about Airship Ventures, the Bay Area start-up that partnered with the Zeppelin's builder to offer these unconventional "flight-seeing" trips and advertising opportunities late last year.

(Image above of the "Spirit of Adventure" is from the Pixar blog)


Christine said...

"boneless chicken of airships" -- ha ha ha!

writermike said...

TOO KEWL!! You have to tweet constantly AND send pics.
Manohman this is fantastic (in the most literal sense)!!!!!!!

verotiger said...

Glad you kept it a secret or I might have gone with you!!!!Amazing what you do for fun. Grandpa