by DAVID AXE
Military air travel can be one of the most exciting things in the world: catapulting off an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, churning low over the Afghan countryside in a twin-rotor Chinook helicopter, spiraling down for a tactical landing in a C-130 bound for Baghdad. By comparison, my Zeppelin ride was almost tranquil.
To be clear, the German-built Zeppelin NT on which I was a passenger, motoring low over the San Francisco area, is not a military aircraft. It belongs to Airship Ventures, a two-year-old tour and advertising operator based at an old Navy blimp base at Moffett Field in northern California. But Eureka, as Airship Venture’s Zeppelin is known, is an unofficial test model for the coming renaissance in military lighter-than-air operations.
Nearly 50 years after the last U.S. military airship in regular service was decommissioned, lighter-than-air craft are making a big comeback. To gain a sense of how our balloon-based aerial future might look and feel, I hitched a ride on Eureka for a 90-minute tour. Airship Venture’s flight-ops officer Jim Dexter was at the helm, wearing a leather bomber jacket and sunglasses.
My first impressions were how quiet and comfortable Eureka was — and how slow. For our circuit around Moffett Field and over Stanford University, we cruised at just 35 miles per hour. With around a dozen passengers and crew and a one-ton payload, Eureka tops out at 50 miles per hour. Cars sped past us on the highways a thousand feet below. It’s the nature of lighter-than-air travel to be low and slow — almost ponderously slow.
But the time premium you pay for airship travel buys you several advantages: airships are highly fuel-efficient for a ton-mile; as long as they avoid storms, they endure few stresses in flight, affording them extremely long service lives; they can be scaled up to a very, very large size at low cost compared to airplanes. In terms of cost per ton-mile, with delivery time factored in, airships fit a niche within the wide gap between sea vessels and cargo planes.
It’s for that reason that the U.S. Navy is mulling the return of large airships for military missions. In coming decades, lighter-than-air vessels much larger than the 250-foot-long Eureka could become a fixture in U.S. military transportation networks.