Sadly, Airship Ventures has ceased operations due to lack of corporate sponsorship
Eureka! is the perfect name for that feeling of floating on a cloud. Fortunately, there are no clouds beneath us as we take off from Long Beach Airport in Airship Venture's Zeppelin Eureka, but you can see the thick layer of smoke from forest fires hanging over the LA basin.
I've often watched the Goodyear Blimp flying over Southern California and thought "I'd sure like to have that view." But you can't just buy a ticket to ride on the Carson-based blimp. You have to be invited.
So I was thrilled when San Francisco-based Airship Ventures started coming down to Southern California every couple months to offer Zeppelin tours of Los Angeles. The airship Eureka is the largest zeppelin in the world, at 246 feet, longer than a 747 airplane. The colossal aircraft is one of only three Zeppelins operating in the world and is the only airship licensed for commercial passengers in the United States.
Airship Ventures launched the first flight on the Eureka from its home at Moffett Field south of San Francisco in May of 2008 and began offering periodic flights in the Los Angeles area in Spring 2009.
After a quick safety briefing in a conference room at the Long Beach Airport, I join my fellow passengers, including a couple families sponsored by the Make a Wish Foundation, for the van ride out to the airship. We are the first passengers of the day, so the Zeppelin is still tethered, but the basket is suspended off the ground, making me grateful for the steadying hand that assists my first step onto the short stairs.
Unlike a blimp, where the balloon gets its shape from the helium, a Zeppelin has a rigid frame supporting its hull. The engines are attached high up on the frame rather than on the basket, allowing a very smooth and quiet ride. The maximum air speed for the Eureka is about 80 mph, but we are cruising closer to 35 mph, the better to enjoy the view.
The Eureka, a Zeppelin NT (New Technology), was manufactured in Germany, by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT), the same company that built the Hindenburg in the 1930s. In the "New Technology" version, the flammable hydrogen that doomed the ill-fated Hindenburg has been replaced with non-flammable helium. The light-weight frame is aluminum and carbon-fiber, and the high-tech multi-laminate skin of the balloon is made by the same company that makes NASA space suits. The three 200-horsepower vectored thrust engines and tail fins are operated by two joysticks on either side of the pilot, allowing for precision control.
It feels like the lap of luxury.
All 12 seats have a picture-window view (even the restroom has a window!), but in just a couple minutes we are allowed to stand up and roam around the cabin and take turns sticking our heads out the two open windows.
Pilot Kate Broad, the only female airship pilot in the world, and Fritz Guenther, co-pilot and flight instructor, on loan from Germany, are more than happy to chat with guests as they maneuver the flying bubble over downtown Long Beach and the Queen Mary, across the dual ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the cliffs of the Palos Verde Peninsula. However, this is not a narrated tour, so if you don't know what you're looking at, you won't know what you're seeing, other than a few obvious landmarks.
The hour-long flight is over way too soon and we descend gently back down to the airport, where a crew member grabs the Eureka's cable and holds us steady. To maintain the airship's balance while we disembark, two passengers step off and are replaced with 2 new people before the next 2 can go. We watch the next tour lift off before we reconvene in the conference room for a glass of champagne or sparkling cider and receive our official flight certificates.
I thought after this flight, I would be able to check this item off my bucket list, but after having a taste, I can't wait to try a sunset flight-seeing tour to the Hollywood Sign. (UPDATE: I got to take the Sunset Tour to Hollywood, check it out!)
Currently, the Eureka spends about a week in Southern California every other month, with the possibility of more frequent visits in winter. One hour and two hour flight itineraries are available, with options including Long Beach and the ports, the Orange County coast or a 2-hour flight over Downtown LA and Hollywood. They have also added a 30 minute flight option. There are a limited number of seats available on the repositioning flights between Northern and Southern California for each visit. Check the Airship Ventures Calendar for the next LA flight dates and to book tickets, or call (650) 969-8100.
Tickets are about $200 to $1000 per ticket depending on flight time. If your schedule is flexible, you can check for Last Minute Specials to take advantage of any last minute discounts to fill seats.
If a Zeppelin flight is not in your budget, you can also see Los Angeles from above in these Air Tours of Los Angeles.
Check out my Photo Gallery of the Airship Ventures Tour of Long Beach and Photo Gallery of the Sunset Tour to Hollywood.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced the review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.