Gynormous helium balloon. Check.
Plastic basket strapped right under it. Check
Four tiny propellers and two even tinier wheels. Check and check.
We are ready to fly!!!
Never in a million years I thought I would get to fly in a blimp. When I think of blimps I think of big sporting events and some giant thing floating in the sky with very obnoxious advertisements written on it. Usually Goodyear. Sometimes something as equally irrelevant.
But when I realized that those things could be used for travel, I couldn’t wait to do it. It’s almost impossible to do it in the US – Goodyear has some flights, but they are by invitation only and I don’t know what it takes to be invited. So we decided to do a detour all the way to Germany, so we can experience this wonderful, if slightly outdated way of travel.
The company that builds and flies zeppelins is located in Friedrichshafen, Germany. It’s an unexciting industrial little town on the shoreline of Lake Constance, right across from Switzerland and Austria. Friedrichshafen has a long history of zeppelin aviation, with the first Zeppelin LZ launched in 1900.
Since I’m such a geek, technical details go first. Technically, most of the modern blimps out there are not blimps. They are zeppelins. The zeppelin differs from the blimp by its rigid structure. If you deflate the blimp, it sags and looses its shape, zeppelin’s structure remains the same. Zeppelin’s hull is made from tear-resistant 3 layer laminate, filled with non-inflammable helium and weighing about 1 t. Our zeppelin was 75 meters long (a baby, compared to the first one, which was almost twice as long), it could go up to 125 km/h and up to 2600 m high for about 20 hours or 900 km.
When we booked tickets, we were told to show up 1 hour ahead for check in. We were late, of course, so as soon as we showed up we were invited for the security screening and briefing. We were led to the classroom, where we were shown a movie about the zeppelin flight and then we had to go to the different room, so we can hear the briefing in English. On our zeppelin there were only 4 of us who didn’t speak German.
Briefing was short and sweet. Some things were no brainer. Like you have to buckle up on the take off and landing. There is an emergency exit. After that things get a little trickier. As it’s important to maintain equal weight during the passenger load and unload, passengers enter and exit at the same time. We were told to line up two by two and every time two passengers exited the aircraft two boarded right away. “If too many passengers exit,” we were told “the aircraft will be too light and it will fly away. And then we will have to catch it.” Hmmm. How in the world would you catch a fly-away gynormous helium balloon?
It all sounded pretty easy at the security briefing. No pictures at the entrance and exit. No brainer. But when the push came to shove… We were loaded up in the minivan and taken to the landing zone. Zeppelins can take off and land vertically, so they don’t need a landing strip, just a small round spot in the middle of the airfield.
As we were lining up in pairs and trying to sneak in a couple of picture next to the blimp, Tiny and I somehow ended up in the beginning of the line and had to go up to the door and start our boarding.
We climbed into the passenger capsule and had to take the seats closest to the back, to get out of the way of the unloading passengers. Than the wind blew and the whole things moved a few feet. That was spooky. Zeppelin never sits on the ground during landing. There are a couple of dudes that are holding it by the ropes, but other than that there is no anchoring of any sort. The tiny wheels are there for guidance mostly.
The loading/unloading went surprisingly quickly and before we knew it we were up in the air. I never realized that zeppelin changes an angle when taking off and landing. I thought that it always stays vertical, but it can go up or down at almost 45 degree angle. The passenger capsule sways gently with an occasional gust of wind. Not very good if you get seasick like me. But thankfully, it wasn’t too bad.
There is a flight attendant and a pilot. Flight attendant mainly there to make sure that everyone is buckled up at the right time and to point out the sights. Yes, there are sights in Friedrichshafen. What they are no one really knows. Or cares.
So we climb on board, sit in our seats, buckle up and the first thing that comes out of Tiny’s mouth is: “Can I watch an iPad???” Yes, honey, that’s exactly why we took a 1000 mile detour, spent all this time, money and energy to be able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So you can watch an iPad in peace.
After we took off, we were allowed to unbuckle our seatbelts and walk around the cabin. Bobby and I looked at each other with the same expression: “Nope, not going anywhere. Will sit here and hang on tight to my seatbelt.” But after a minute or two we got really brave and took a few unstable steps to take a family photo. And after that there was no sitting us down! The occasional swaying is something that you get used to pretty quickly, the views are fantastic and the whole understanding that you are floating in a giant helium balloon is beyond mind-blowing.
The passenger capsule fits 14 passengers in two rows, so everyone has a window seat.
We flew about 300 meters above ground, not too high, but high enough to have a great view of surrounding landscapes. We booked the shortest flight possible – 30 minutes, which was plenty of time to get the “zeppelin experience” without kids getting too bored and me getting seasick. We made it all the way to the lake, enjoyed the beautiful views of the harbor and all the sailboats out, flew along the shoreline for a while and came back.
Kids kept asking weird questions, like what would happen if there is a hole in a blimp? What if it’s a little hole? What if it’s a giant hole? Don’t know and don’t really want to know. We had a chance to chat a little with the fellow passengers and realized how lucky we are. One pair of guys was there to celebrate one guy’s 50th birthday and it was their third attempt at flying. First time they had technical difficulties, the second time the weather wasn’t good, so the third time was the charm.The first time they tried to fly, there was a family from Texas who were super disappointed that the flight didn’t happen. And here we show up, barely scheduled enough time to swing by the place and the weather turns perfect, the wind is gone and everything is working perfectly.
Landing was equally as unnerving. Apparently, a 45 degree angle is not a very comfortable flying angle. But that didn’t last too long, and before we knew it, we had to jump off and start heading back to our boarding spot as another pair was running in to board.
So we land, Tiny gets out of the zeppelin, looks around: “Mommy, how come we landed at the same place we took off?” Well, honey, there isn’t enough helium in the world to be able to lift this thing loaded with our suitcases.
We had to wait until everyone was on board and zeppelin took off right above us and then we were boarded back on the mini-van and taken back to the briefing area, where we had some champaign to celebrate our flight. I hope the kids will remember that they got to fly a blimp, we will for sure, treasure this memory for the rest of our lives.