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What is more Steampunk than riding on an airship? Riding on an airship as it travels over some of the most historic Victorian buildings in the United States, that’s what! I had that experience this weekend as New Technology met old dreams over St Louis, Missouri.
Rebirth of the Zeppelin Airship
In middle school I wrote a research paper on rigid airships. It was the beginning of a lifelong love for, and interest in, Lighter than Air (LTA) craft and technologies.
For decades I followed the trials and tribulations of the various proponents of the technology as they tried to renew interest in LTA and produce designs that would be economically viable in the realities of the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first. It was a long and uphill road. Ten years ago the Zeppelin was reborn in Germany. Zeppelin began building NT (for New Technology) ships http://www.zeppelinflug.de/seiten/E/default.htm. They have so far produced three vessel. One flies out of Germany, the second flew out of Japan for several years and in 2008 the third ship was built and sold to Airship Ventures http://www.airshipventures.com/ out of California. It was loaded aboard a ship and sailed to Texas and then flown to Sunnyvale California to be based out of Moffet Field. This was the USS Macon’s homeport before she crashed off Point Sur. Named Eureka to honor her home state’s motto she is a marvel of modern technologies mated to the most venerable of all human flight methods.
Eureka was built by ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG a modern day descendant of Count Zeppelin’s original company. For many decades a trust fund set aside for Lighter than Air craft had been slowly growing. By 1988 it was large enough to provide funding for a research craft and initial studies on the technological feasibility of rigid framed airships using advanced methods and materials was begun. By 1991 proof of concept models were showing great promise and work begins in earnest for development of 75 meter (246 feet) long craft. In 1997 the first of the Zeppelin NT craft has its maiden flight before a crowd of 30,000 onlookers. It has been almost 60 years since Friedrichshafen has seen a new airship take to the sky. Since then the company has begun serial production of these 246 foot long craft. Three have been built and additional ships are on order. This spring Goodyear has rejuvenated its long standing relationship with companies bearing the Zeppelin name and heritage by ordering three Zeppelin NT ships to replace its aging fleet of blimps.
These new craft make use of the great technological advances during that time. The frame is of carbon fiber and aluminum, the envelope serves as both external skin and gas cell, using a three layer sandwich of advanced materials. The cockpit is ultramodern, looking like something from a jet fighter, with almost all instruments being computer displays. Controls are fly by wire and the pilot uses a joystick rather than wheels or yokes. The use of computers, improved instrumentation and fly by wire controls allows a single pilot to operate the airship, rather than the larger number of crewmen needed during the classical age of airships. The use of a single pilot did rob me of one thing I had particularly looked forward to. Lars, a highly skilled Zeppelin pilot from Germany, did not give the traditional command of Up Ship! This was my single disappointed of the entire experience though, so I can well live with it.
One of the greatest improvements is in propulsion. The last classical Zeppelins LZ 130 and 131 both used diesel engines mounted in external pods. The propellers were fixed bladed and the pods could only apply thrust directly forwards or backwards. The US Navy’s two largest rigids ZRS4 Akron and ZRS 5 Macon had both been fitted with engines housed within the hull and propellers on outriggers that allowed for the airscrews to be swiveled. Macon was also fitted with variable pitch propellers as well. Variable pitch propellers allow the angle the propleeor blades “bite” the air to be changed. If the pitch is totally reversed the engine can continue to run in the same direction and so can the spinning propeller blade but the force is now directed in the opposite direction. This allows much more rapid deceleration. The combination of swiveling propellers and variable pitch blades allowed tremendous flexibility in how the thrust was directed and how quickly an engine could change from forward to reverse thrust. The 784 foot long Macon was able to rise vertically, like a helicopter. The new ships are even more capable in this ability. They have three engines. The two forward engines each drive a single airscrew capable of 120 degrees of play, and fully variable pitch to the propellers. The aft engine drives a propeller on the centerline axis of the ship and a side thrusting rotor as well. The ship can use vertical thrust to take off even when in a somewhat heavy condition. The variable pitch allows the props to push a light ship down towards the ground for a landing. This allows the engines to do the work that previously had to be done by dropping ballast or valving precious lifting gas.
Finding a Flight
As I said I had watched Airship Ventures success in California with great enjoyment. While looking ov er their web page I found that the usually west coast based airship was making a national tour of the U.S. and would be flying out of St. Louis Downtown Airport. I was lucky enough to get a reservation for a flight on Friday August 19th. After a week of anticipation, which I shared with my coworkers and anyone else that couldn’t escape from me in the few second it took me to bring up the subject I drove from work to Cahokia, Illinois. This small town is the location of the airport hosting Airship Ventures flights while in St Louis. As I took the small side streets that led to the airport gate I turned a corner and there it was! The first time in my life I saw a real honest to gosh Zeppelin! I had seen a blimp before but Oh-My-God a Zeppelin! It was amazing. I stopped and shot a couple of pictures of the ship on her mobile mast.
St Louis Downtown Airport is small but has a big history http://www.stlouisdowntownairport.com/history.htm. First opened in 1929 the field was once the home to some of Curtiss Wright’s operations. Now it serves as home to a number of charter services. There is also a small air museum, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum http://www.airandspacemuseum.org/.
This highlights the varied aviation history of St. Louis. Curtiss-Wright, McDonnell, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Ozark Airlines and TWA were all part of the aviation heritage of St. Louis. The museum is small but has some very nice exhibits. It is located in one of the old Curtiss Wright hangers. I found the museum while I waited for my preflight check-in time (I had arrived very early). This also gave me a chance to look over the Farmers Airship. She was there by the fence and I shot a number of pictures of her graceful shape as she windsocked around her truck-mounted mast. Several other enthusiasts were there as well looking Eureka over as she gently rotated with the changing breeze. Her very simple ground handling arrangements contrast with the so much more complex methods used in the 1920s and 30s with such things as high masts, vast ground crews, railcars to hold down tail fins and huge mooring out circles located near enormous hangers. The Eureka travels around the country light, a ground crew of twenty or so and a handful of vehicles. The most important is the truck mounted mast system. This allows mooring in any grass field large enough to allow the 246 foot long ship to get in and out and to swing with the wind. Compared to the efforts to ground handle the big ships during the airships’ first heyday it is simplicity itself.
A very disappointing Friday!
After looking over the ship from afar (thanks to TSA’s regulations against being out on the field) and a visit to the museum I drove around the fence to the Jet Aviation terminal. If this is any indication of the facilities used by Airship Ventures I can only say bravo. The lounge was really comfortable. The ground crewmembers could not have been more enthusiastic. They were amazingly friendly and they knew they are part of the coolest aerial endeavor in decades. The two flight attendants Karen and Jen were very knowledgeable and both exhibited real interest in Eureka and LTA history. Jen’s favorite ship was Graf Zeppelin LZ 127. Her discussion of the differences between Graf Zeppelin’s around the world flight in 1929 and the current tour of Eureka was detailed and insightful.
Friday afternoon was hot with about 2/10 cloud cover. I was slated for the second flight of the day. The first set of passengers got their preflight briefing and the van took them off to the ship. We stood and watched them from the windows. We watched them sit in the van for a long time. We watched the van come back. The hydraulic sensor in the tail propeller unit failed and needed to be replaced. This required accessing the assembly, which was over twenty feet above the ground. This necessitated the cancelation of several flights, including mine. The ground crews were extremely capable in rescheduling us on to flights later. I was rescheduled for Sunday morning.
A Dinner to restore my spirits
To drown my disappointment I met my wife at The Scottish Arms http://www.thescottisharms.com/ in St Louis City. This establishment serves excellent food and has a huge selection of single malt scotches. We selected a meal of all appetizers, scotch eggs, haggis fritters, puff pastries, a cheese plate and a very nice lamb terrine. Since we were both driving we skipped the scotch (so maybe drown is the wrong word). As always the food was excellent. We’ve been going to this restaurant since it first opened and have enjoyed many of the great items off their menu. The tin ceiling, vast amounts of polished wood and Scottish décor give a Victorian and Old World charge to the place. Service is good and prices are reasonable, although not cheap.
Sunday, Sunday! SUNDAY!
Saturday seemed to go on forever. Because I had waited since I was but a wee lad one more day shouldn’t have been more than I could handle. I was almost too excited to sleep. I woke well before the alarm. Off we went, again arriving well before the time we were required to be there. Good thing to. It turned out my flight was at 10AM rather than 11. Even better the 10 AM flight was 1 hour instead of 30 minutes. We got our preflight briefing and the van took us out to the ship. This time we lifted without a hitch. Eureka seemed to jump upwards with a smooth and pleasant acceleration. It wasn’t anything like any other aircraft I’ve ever been in. Not the powerful takeoff of a jet or the laborious thrashing of a helicopter. It seemed effortless, if it was like anything it was like an elevator, an amazing glass elevator that offered stunning and changing views as it climbed skyward. In less than two minutes Jen told us we were free to move about the cabin. If the previous day had moved with glacial slowness the next hour was one of the fastest I have ever experienced. We flew north and west making for the St Louis downtown area. We quickly reached our cruising altitude of between 1000 and 1400 feet and cross the Mississippi. I’ve flown over the area many times approaching Lambert in commercial jets and in a helicopter (piloted by the late Alan Barklage, one of the greatest aviators to ever fly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsBv5SIICIY). None of those experiences can hold a candle to riding in a Zeppelin.
The ship is nearly without vibration and even with its windows open (try THAT in a jet airliner) is extremely quiet. I wondered if the passengers moving about the cabin would affect the trim but it didn’t appear to. The ride was smooth and steady. Stately would be a good term. There were a couple of bumps, but they seemed so less annoying than turbulence in a fixed wing aircraft does. We rushed around the cabin enjoying my home town from an entirely new vantage. Lars, the pilot, guided his ship and its excited cargo of eager site seers all across the bright August sky.
With great precision he flew us in front of the Gateway Arch http://www.stlouisarch.com/experience/the-gateway-arch/ so that our shadow was within the arch and the shadow of the arch. This made for a great photo opportunity. The path was perfect and he centered the ships shadow right between the legs of the arch.
Eads Bridge http://bridgepros.com/projects/eads/ the first bridge to cross the Mississippi below its confluence with the Missouri River was right below us. Its graceful steel arches still span the “Father of Waters” More than 135 years after they were completed. This is one of the most famous bridges in the United States and holds a place equal to some of Brunel’s greatest works. Its three arches each span more than 500 feet and the total length of 6,442 feet was the longest in the world at the time of completion. The great piers were driven all the way to bedrock at a terrible toll to the workers as they faced “caisson disease”, which we now know as decompression sickness. Fifteen workers died and numerous others were injured by the then poorly understood condition. The bridge still stands as a lasting tribute to its designer and to the men who labored under such dangerous conditions to complete his vision.
From there we drove north and west. Below the whole city was laid out like an amazing scale model. The huge water works, originally dating from just before the 1904 World’s Fair glittered bright blue in the late morning sunlight http://www.stlwater.com/history2.php.
Also part of the St Louis City water system were a number of water towers. Three of them still stand http://www.builtstlouis.net/watertowers/watertowers1.html and we passed over the two most northern ones, the Bissell and the White Towers. We got excellent view of these structures, which encase standpipes used to regulate water pressure in the steam driven system of the late 19th century. Only seven such towers still exist in the United States and three of them are in St Louis! The view from above is stunning.
Union Station completed in 1894 was at one time the largest railway station in the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Station_(St._Louis). Its tower and red tile roof still dominate Market Street. After a period of decay and abandonment (during which time it served at a set for Escape from New York). Now a shopping and entertainment center with an attached hotel the vast train sheds no longer see the daily arrivals and departures. The station was enlarged to handle the massive influx of passengers for the 1904 World’s Fair.
There are many relics of the Fair visible from the Zeppelin. Recently refurbished is the main reflecting basin. Located at the base of “Art Hill” http://www.forestparkforever.org/ this is one of the largest bodies water in the park. It shone brightly in the summer sun as we flew over it.
We landed safely but all too soon. Debarking was interesting. We didn’t moor to the mast but were in flight with the wheels touching the ground. Two new passengers would embark, making the ship heavier and two of us that had completed their flight would debark. In this way the ship never became lighter or more buoyant than she had been when we touched down, so no gas had to be valved. I do not believe that any of the ships from the 20’s or 30’s could have achieved this level of control so close to the ground. It was absolutely stunning when compared to the many stories of ships being damaged while being walked out a hanger or before they could be fully moored in a mooring out circle. It just shows the amazing progress that has been made in airship technology. It seems like a small thing but vastly increases the safety and usefulness of these new ships. It will prevent damage during landings and preserve valuable helium, which will not need to be valved off for landings.
Airship Ventures Company and Crew
I have only great things to say about the experience and in particular about the wonderful people who work for Airship Ventures. Their handling of the flight cancellation on Friday was polite and pleasant. Almost every commercial airline could learn a valuable lesson in customer service from how they dealt with the issue. I was rebooked on the Sunday flight rapidly. The employees all truly believe in what they are doing and the technology they represent and it is obvious from the moment you meet them. Their excitement is visible and contagious.
The flights cost from $299.00 plus tax for half an hour and go up from there. Longer flights are more expensive. When flying out of their home State they offer flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. These are 6 to 10 hours long and include catering. The price tag of $1500.00 per seat is certainly not inexpensive but for what would be a once in a lifetime experience has more than a little appeal to any Zeppelin enthusiast. It might take us a long time to save up that sort of money for a vacation but I can see that as the perfect tenth anniversary gift (isn’t the tenth one the Helium anniversary?).
In summing up my experience I think the most telling thing I can write is this. I waited 36 years to ride on a Zeppelin. The experience was everything I had dreamed it would be and more. Years of built up expectations were exceeded in every way. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. If you get the chance take a flight.