Riding on a zeppelin, the next best thing to time travel

If you've met any steampunk cosplayers in the last five years, odds are good they described themselves as the crew of an airship. They're wrong. The crew of a real airship look a lot like tanned Californians who forgot to borrow shoes other than flip-flops when they raided a flight attendant's closet. There's no brass, no grime and no gears. Instead, it's the best flying experience since the romance of air travel in the 1960s.

The Farmer's Airship, operated by Airship Ventures, normally flies a set route from California to Seattle. To the delight of both air and tech enthusiasts nationwide, the zeppelin is currently in the middle of a six month cross-country tour. I had an opportunity to enjoy a flight when it docked in St. Louis.

Although the zeppelin itself was a modern technological marvel, the entire experience had a hazy sensation of alternate reality. It was like I'd stepped into a pre-9/11 world of flight.

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Eureka

Passenger check-in consisted of showing my driver's license to a man sitting in front of a MacBook. The flight safety speech was given on the ground while waiting for our flight. Security screening was nothing more than a fast, efficient wanding and a quick look inside any large bags. Everyone was laid back, cheerful, and genuinely in love with the zeppelin outside.

Let's clear up a few misconceptions. This wasn't an afternoon on-board Baron Wulfenbach's flying capitol city in Girl Genius. Instead, the Eureka had the slick, modern look of a new white iPhone and was chock full of just as much cutting edge technology.

The Eureka is one of only two zeppelins that flies commercially, and both were made in Germany. The modern craft are made from lightweight carbon fiber and aircraft grade aluminum struts. A fully computerized open cockpit is full of countless buttons and switches. Instead of a wheel and yoke, the pilot steers with a joystick that looks like it could be plugged into an Xbox 360. Helicopter-like propellers are positioned on the sides and tail of the ship. In a pinch, it can make a fast vertical rise, though the staff said passengers enjoy the surprisingly swift escalator-like ascent more than a sudden leap into the air.

The 246-foot-long zeppelin is 15 feet longer than a standard Boeing 747, 50 feet longer than a commercial blimp, and one of the largest things currently in the air, anywhere in the world. With tickets starting at $300 for a 45 minute ride, the flight wasn't cheap. However, by the time you factor in the 28 person ground crew and a convoy of support trucks, it's a miracle they kept the price down that low.

Compared to modern airplane travel, it was paradise.

Sadly, there are good reasons why we fly around in metal tubes propelled by jet fuel. Weather conditions which wouldn't make an airplane pilot blink caused two delays in my flight. No matter what you see in movies like Neil Gaiman's Stardust, airships don't fly in rain or wind. One gentleman on my flight planned to surprise his father and brother-in-law with a guy's day out. After four reschedulings, his family figured out the surprise. Luckily, they were still utterly delighted by the experience.

Boarding was a breeze, the cabin itself was amazingly spacious, and the unsecured cockpit was inches from the front row of seats. It made me wish I lived in a world where air transportation meant a gentle ride in a classy gondola beneath a quietly humming airship.

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A Gentler Way to Fly

Takeoff was a mere whisper. I knew we were moving because I could see the ground disappear beneath the beautifully large windows, but there was no real sense of acceleration. Plane flights always begin with that moment of intense thrust when you feel like gravity is not cool with you leaving the ground and must therefore drag you back to the Earth with all its might.

Instead, the zeppelin's liftoff felt more like paragliding. There was a little wind, a gentle rocking motion, and about 90 seconds of us all being glad we had seat belts because we were at a funny angle. Then our perky flight attendant (who indulgently let me call her an air hostess) let us know we were welcome to open the windows and roam the cabin.

That's right. Open windows.

I couldn't resist unleashing my inner kindergartner. First my arm went out the window. It felt exactly like sticking my arm out a car window when cruising along the highway. Then my head went out. The air hostess gently reminded us not to stick anything out the window if we minded losing it. We couldn't drop the zeppelin to the ground to look for a lost camera. I also took it as a hint to stop standing on my chair and trying to squeeze my shoulders outside.

The zeppelin's gondola is just large enough for 10 seats, an open flight area with the pilot and air hostess, plus a window seat in back for amazing tail views (as you'll see in the gallery below). The air hostess told us the window sizes were carefully chosen to balance between giving us the best possible view without invoking a fear of heights. They also happened to be perfectly sized for a standard camera aspect ratio.

Once we were free to roam the cabin, seats no longer mattered. We jostled to the front so we could question the pilot, took turns on the wide deck seat in back, snapped photographs of one another, and basically did everything in our power to destabilize the giant balloon above our heads. It didn't make a bit of difference. The camaraderie of the shared experience was as delightful as the flight itself.

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A Colorful Crew

The entire California-based crew had a wonderfully laid back casualness. The pilot wore a pair of shorts and athletic socks, no shoes. Staring down through a window located beneath his feet, it looked almost like he was going to run the zeppelin into orbit, like we were in a souped up Flintstone's car that could somehow fly. I didn't check the top for pterodactyls while I had my head stuck out the window.

The pilot himself was an East German. He has a massive scar along one leg he acquired while racing out to see zeppelins near the Berlin Wall. From that day, he knew he wanted to fly one. If that meant moving to America to pilot one of two in the world, so be it. He obviously loves his job. The grin never left his face as he explained controls to the pilots.

Our air hostess explained she grew up in a military family and always wanted to be a flight attendant. However, she was too short for the job. When the opportunity came up to become the flight attendant on a zeppelin, she leaped for it. Being short is an asset on an airship: she weighs less, doesn't need to reach overhead bins, and won't bump her head on the low ceiling by the bench seat in back.

Landing was just as peacefully abrupt as takeoff. I honestly hadn't noticed we were descending until our air hostess asked us to buckle back in. Seconds later we were on the ground, rooting through our complimentary string bags for our flight certificate and squeezy desk zeppelin.

The crew's casual attitude hid a great deal of hard work. It took 25 people on the ground and eight support vehicles to make the zeppelin's flights possible. At most, it can travel 500 miles in a day. Airship Ventures said the cross country tour has been the most logistically ambitious thing they've ever done (short of buying an airship to begin with). They're covering half the country in six months with no plans to do it again. While people frequently beg them to come back, the California crew said they have this pesky desire to see their friends and family again some day and maybe even sleep in the same bed for more than two nights in a row.

If it docks in your city, do it. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience. If you miss out, you'll have to travel to California for another opportunity. I've been up in planes, gliders and paragliders and I can honestly say there is nothing like the experience of riding a zeppelin. Few things in life live up to fantasy expectations. Riding in a real life zeppelin exceeds them.

You can see the national tour schedule for Airship Ventures at their website website.

All photos taken for DVICE by Chris-Rachael Oseland.

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