The first Zeppelin airship to fly in the skies over the U.S. in 71 years, the Airship Ventures Zeppelin will end its cross-country transit flight by making an entrance over the Golden Gate Bridge Saturday. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Zeppelins, the giant floating airships used to carry passengers and drop bombs until the 1930s, haven't been seen in American skies for more than 70 years.
Now a California company is bringing the iconic aircraft back to the United States, with plans to offer aerial tours of the San Francisco Bay area in a newly built zeppelin. It's one of just three in the world -- the others are in Germany and Japan.
Airship Ventures Inc.'s zeppelin arrived in the Bay Area on Saturday, passing over the Golden Gate Bridge en route to its new home at Moffett Field, a former naval air station in Mountain View, about 40 miles south of San Francisco.
Fifteen feet longer than a Boeing 747, the 246-foot-long Zeppelin NT (New Technology) was built in Hamburg, Germany and transported by container ship to Beaumont, Texas, before a cross-country flight to California.
While they may look like blimps, zeppelins have rigid internal frames that are covered with a canvas hull.
Starting Friday, Airship Ventures will begin offering 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. The cabin holds 12 passengers and two crew members, and tickets start at $495 per person for an one-hour ride.
"It's a way to see the world in a way that you haven't experienced it before," said Brian Hall, a software entrepreneur 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."
Invented by Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany in the late 19th century, zeppelins were used for commercial passenger transport and military operations until the start of World War II.
The zeppelin's golden age ended in 1937 when the LZ-129 Hindenburg -- the largest airship ever built -- caught fire and burst in flames in front of thousands of spectators in Lakehurst, N.J., killing 35 of 97 people on board.
A German company, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, began building a new zeppelin about decade ago and has been offering passenger rides since 2001.
While the Hindenberg was fueled by flammable hydrogen, the modern version is kept aloft by nonflammable helium. They have carried more than 80,000 passengers without a safety incident, Hall said.
The Halls came up with the business plan for Airship Ventures about two years ago after Brian, 43, took his first zeppelin ride in Cologne, Germany.
The German company agreed to build another zeppelin so that Airship Ventures could start offering rides from its base at Moffett Field, which has three of the country's 13 remaining airship hangers.
Airship Ventures has ordered two more zeppelins, which take about 18 months to build, and plan to offer tours on the East Coast, most likely from New York and Florida, starting in 2010.
Despite the slumping economy, the company hopes to sell about 15,000 tickets a year in the Bay Area, aiming to attract passengers for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and even marriage proposals.
"In a time when you might feel troubled, it's something you can do that's quite uplifting," Hall said.