The Return of the Zeppelin

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The giant floating airships that once carried passengers and dropped bombs until the 1930s have been MIA for over 70 years. Now a California company is bringing the zeppelin back to the United States, with plans to offer aerial tours of the San Francisco Bay area.

The newly built 246-foot Zeppelin NT (New Technology) of Airship Ventures Inc. arrived in the Bay Area October 26. One of only three in the world, it was constructed in Hamburg, Germany, and transported by container ship to Beaumont, Texas. It then passed over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to its new home at Moffett Field, a former naval air station in Mountain View.

Beginning October 31, Airship Ventures will offer rides that provide a bird’s-eye view of Napa and Sonoma wine country, the Big Sur coastline, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area.

“It’s a way to see the world in a way that you haven’t experienced it before,” said Brian Hall, who started the company last year with his wife Alexandra. “In a zeppelin, you’re flying low and slow. You’re going at a leisurely pace. You’re seeing things that you wouldn’t see from the road.”

While they may look like blimps, zeppelins have rigid internal frames covered with a canvas hull. The Zeppelin NT’s cabin holds 12 passengers and two crew members. Tickets start at $495 per person for a one-hour ride.

The zeppelin was invented by Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany in the late 19th century and was used for commercial passenger transport and military operations until the start of World War II. Its golden age ended in 1937 when the LZ 129 Hindenburg, the largest ship ever built, caught fire and burst into flames, killing 35 of 97 people on board.

While the Hindenburg was fueled by flammable hydrogen, the modern version uses nonflammable helium. According to Hall, more than 80,000 passengers have ridden without a safety problem.

Airship Ventures has ordered two more zeppelins and plans to offer tours on the East Coast starting in 2010.

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